Robert Fisk — or to mirror the style of his latest missive, let’s just call him Bob — is convinced there aren’t 70,000 “moderate” opposition fighters in Syria, contrary to the recent assertion of Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron.
Bob doesn’t present a conflicting data set — a different analysis of the makeup of the opposition. Instead, his position rests on two pieces of reasoning.
Firstly, Bob asserts, if such a force did exist, “it would already have captured Damascus and hurled Bashar al-Assad from power.”
Assad is still in power. It therefore follows that the 70,000 fighters don’t exist. Impeccable reasoning, some might say.
Secondly, “Who’s ever heard before of a ‘moderate’ with a Kalashnikov?” This he presents as a rhetorical question on the basis that “moderates” would be “folk who don’t carry weapons at all.”
Bob declines to label all those opposition fighters who by virtue of carrying weapons, can’t as far as he is concerned be called moderates, but the obvious antonym would be extremists. Since his father, Bill, gun in hand, fought in the trenches in World War One, would that have made him an extremist too?
I guess not, because the terms “moderate” or “extremist” apparently only apply to people fighting without close direction from their own government. A government, however little political legitimacy it possesses, can apparently deploy “ground troops” — a “regular force” that meets Bob’s approval. Approval of what, I’m not sure. Men in government-issued uniforms?
There are few problems with the logic here — problems that I hope many readers would see as glaring.
Firstly, as even the most casual observers should have long been aware, throughout this war the Assad regime has maintained uncontested rule throughout Syrian airspace.
The U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS, once it expanded inside Syria, did so without objections from the Syrian government and thus there have been no clashes between what are ostensibly rival air forces. Likewise, Russian jets now support Assad’s forces and their allies on the ground.
The fact that not a single component of the opposition possesses an air force and neither do any possess surface-to-air missiles in any significant numbers, is precisely what has allowed the Assad regime to conduct its air operations using one of the crudest methods of warfare: dropping barrel bombs from helicopters.
These assaults, along with bombs dropped by air force jets, along with its use of the bulk of heavy weapons on the ground, are the reason Assad has not been driven out of Damascus.
Secondly, if the defining characteristic of an extremist is that he carries a Kalashnikov, wouldn’t that also make Assad’s own troops extremists since they too carry the same Russian weapons?
As a veteran war reporter, Robert Fisk enjoys an international reputation built on a career of fearless journalism — such as his account of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982. But these days, unfortunately, his interest in reporting seems to have waned as he coasts along, buoyed by the authority which derives from his earlier work.
Still, when it comes to this question about the numerical strength of the so-called moderate opposition in Syria, it’s predictable and understandable that Fisk would choose to frame this as a debate between a seasoned Middle East journalist and a British prime minister.
We all know perfectly well that Cameron is, as the English would say, batting on a sticky wicket. Who can fail to have suspicions that this PM might be drawing his information from yet another “dodgy dossier”?
Fortunately, there’s no reason to reduce this issue to a question about who you want to believe: Cameron or Fisk?
Unlike early in 2003, when the war in Iraq had yet to be launched and its alleged necessity was based on the sketchiest intelligence, the situation in Syria can be analyzed without relying solely on deductive reasoning, wild speculation, and dubious sources.
There are well-informed, independent analysts who have neither a political ax to grind, nor a journalistic image to sustain, nor cozy relations with senior government officials to maintain, and far from dismissing Cameron’s claim, they say it’s accurate and flesh out their position in detail.
Charles Lister acknowledges that at the core of this debate is the question of how “moderate” is defined. He identifies 105-110 factions who in combination amount to 75,000 fighters who are “explicitly nationalist in terms of their strategic vision; they are local in terms of their membership; and they seek to return to Syria’s historical status as a harmonious multi-sectarian nation in which all ethnicities, sects and genders enjoy an equal status before the law and state.”
Had the West more definitively intervened in Syria early on, we would undoubtedly have more moderate, more cohesive and more natural ally-material opposition to work with. Unfortunately, things took a different path. Our subsequent obsession with the extremists and refusal to tackle Syria’s complexity has clouded our vision. A ‘moderate’ opposition in culturally attuned terms does exist in Syria, we need only open our eyes to it. Only these groups – and certainly not Assad – will ensure the real extremists such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda eventually lose their grip on power in Syria.
Kyle Orton provides some more granular detail:
In southern Syria, there are more than 30,000 fighters between the Southern Front, Al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad a-Sham, and Faylaq al-Rahman. And in western/northern Syria the vetted FSA-branded groups, Asala, The Levant Front, Zanki, and the other, largely Aleppine units add up to another 35,000. The other 10,000 fighters are in these smaller groups of strategic value.
In spite of the media and political focus on ISIS, both Lister and Orton see the larger threat in Syria emanating from al Qaeda. Orton writes:
Without a clear commitment to Assad’s ouster and meaningfully bolstering the moderate elements of the insurgency, Al-Qaeda is marching toward erecting a base of operations that is wholly integrated into the local terrain in Syria from which to wage its global holy war.
Commentators such as Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and others who these days sound indistinguishable from the Israelis and the neoconservatives, may well say, al Qaeda or ISIS — what’s the difference? They’re all terrorists. They’re all fed by “the octopus” of Saudi Arabia.
What is strange and disturbing about this current of opinion is that it buttresses a sentiment which separates clarity from discrimination.
Supposedly, we can have a clear view of the situation in Syria without needing to understand any of the details. Questions about the size, strength, and nature of the complex array of forces fighting in Syria can be waved away with an air no less regal than Assad’s own dismissive gestures when he claims his enemies are all “terrorists.”