Sometimes the defeats of the 'Arab Spring' revolutions are blamed on 'lack of unity'. Little serious attention is devoted to just why unity is lacking. All too often the problem involves no mere disposition to fractiousness but a tragic inability to make hard choices. What's more, the worse things get, the harder it becomes to acknowledge even that there's a hard choice to be made. That failure to choose can breed elaborate self-deception and wishful thinking.
In Syria the hard choice is between radical Islamists and Assad. The reality is stark. The US, in a perpetual panic about arms falling into Islamist hands, was never inclined to give serious aid to an anti-Assad revolution. When IS routed the American/Iranian proxy forces in Iraq, this disinclination solidified into certainty. Syria's rebels would be aided only against IS. US plans for the rebels complement its air campaign strategy, which US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explicitly said would help Assad. The US have moved from not intending to overthrow Assad to intending not to overthrow him.
The US betrayal of Syrian rebels left radical Islamists as the only real alternative to those genuinely committed to destroying the régime. Secularist forces clearly would not, on their own, be up to the job; indeed their very survival is questionable. (Here is an only slightly too pessimistic overview of the military situation.) The only way to beat Assad is to ally with radical Islamists and especially Jabhat al Nusra, whose forces were in many areas by far the most effective.
For secularists the choice is hard for three reasons. First, while Jabhat al Nusra professes no desire to impose its views on others, it has an ultraconservative agenda. If dominant, it would establish a state which rejected all liberal ideals and imposed draconian restrictions, most of all on women and minorities. It would transform Syria into a society which secularists found unlivable. Second, and worse, quite possibly a majority of Syrians have much the same inclinations. Third, by now US attacks on radical Islamists have provoked increasingly bitter FSA-Jabhat-al-Nusra fighting in which some secular activists have lost friends and relatives. For many secularists, an alliance with Jabhat al Nusra is an abomination promising an abhorrent future.
The alternative, the only other alternative, is Assad. It is very unlikely that even an alliance with Jabhat al Nusra could destroy the régime; it is utterly out of the question that the secularists alone could do so. Allying with IS is also out of the question because (unlike in Iraq) IS prefers attacking the secularists to allying with them. So an alliance with radical Islamists, in the form of JAN, is the only live option. To reject it is to facilitate the survival of Assad. No 'being against', no detestation of Assad can mask that reality. The rejection entails the survival. Indeed the secularists' alignment with the US now discredits them so thoroughly that they can at most hope for a minor role in Syria's future. There is no nicely sanitized, Western-democratic third way.
Secular activists who reject Jabhat al Nusra have therefore in effect chosen Assad. In their convictions they're as anti-Assad as ever. Yet it's easy to see signs, not even of 'cognitive dissonance', but of their true if very unwilling allegiance.
I will not point to individuals who exemplify this stance for two reasons. First, it would be deplorable to criticize people whose desperation and personal loss have led them down what can only be described as the wrong path. Second, few individuals espouse all or exactly the views discussed: it is more a composite tendency than one found in particular activists. But those interested won't have trouble finding relevant examples. In what follows, "the activists" just refers to some who share some of the attitudes described.
It shows in several ways. They insist that the US is backing "the rebels" after all. One alleged piece of evidence for this fantasy predominates: don't the Americans provide the opposition fighting Assad with "advanced" TOW anti-tank guided missiles? These missiles are not advanced; they have been replaced in contemporary armies by more modern versions or by different systems altogether.* But the qualitative issues weigh less heavily than the quantitative ones.
Here's what it looks like when the US or, as the activists now obediently say, "the Coalition", seriously backs a fighting force that it wants to win:
“The cargo plane contains 5,000 anti-tank missiles to help the Peshmerga forces in the fight against IS militants,” a Czech military official told Czech media.
"Earlier this year, the Czech government approved the delivery of 10 million rounds of ammunition for Kalashnikov assault rifles, eight million rounds for machine guns, 5,000 for rocket-propelled grenades and 5,000 hand grenades for Kurdish fighters."
Of course that's not the sole large arms delivery, nor are arms deliveries the half of it. In days, "the Coalition" somehow managed to provide the Kurds with substantial air cover in the form of strikes coordinated with Kurdish fighters on the ground. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Kurds' relationship to Assad has been described as a "de facto alliance".
Kurdish leaders say said that the support they receive is inadequate. If so, there are no words for the level of supply to anti-Assad rebels, who still sometimes have to fight with improvised trebuchets, and this after four years.
The TOW missiles are a case in point. They are supplied to 'vetted' rebel groups with the caution better suited to feeding a cage full of rats. Each firing of each TOW missile has to be recorded on video. Here's what (according to meticulous arms tracker Elliott Higgins) the tally looks like in recent months:
This is America's bounty for the rebels. The supplies are not for a force whose opponents, like IS, have no air cover and who are being bombed daily with genuinely advanced precision munitions on the basis of a state-of-the-art military intelligence system. No, these supplies are for a force confronting the Syrian régime, an enemy with far more fighters than IS plus an air force that inflicts devastating damage on rebels and civilians daily.
The rebels' reaction to this situation has in some cases moved from indignation to apologetics born, I think, of disgust and despair.
Activists used to seethe with rage. Now they excuse the Obama administration with fictions and absurdities. The US, it's said, 'has its own agenda' - which you might as well say of Assad - and after all, the US is fighting the rebels' enemy, "the Islamists". Jabhat al Nusra now becomes "Al Qaeda", even though security specialists say that "Al Qaeda" is more a brand than an organization, even though it's well known that many joined Jabhat al Nusra simply because it was the best or only anti-Assad force in their region, even though Jabhat al Nusra hasn't given the slightest indication they're new Bin Ladens, even though their aggression against the US-aligned opposition comes after the US bombed them. (Before that there were only the minor feuds common throughout the Syrian conflict.) Syrian activists cover their choice of Assad with the sort of willful or feigned ignorance associated with the worst American bigots.
To this nonsense they add a falsehood now so thoroughly exposed that it must count as a lie: that IS and the régime are at least de facto allies; that they "don't fight" one another. This represents a lame attempt to make attacks on IS something like attacks on Assad. The only problem is that even the US hasn't the gall to embrace such a transparent excuse. It would be no more absurd to say that, in the fight against IS, it is the rebels who are Assad's de facto allies.
On top of this, activists do what seems impossible; they look at the course of the war through rose-colored glasses. Aleppo is strangled, the clearest of indicators that the US isn't interested in supporting the rebels against Assad - no matter, we're told that things aren't going so badly after all. And then there is the south, where the rebels, it seems, are eternally making decisive gains. However it's quite clear that the régime isn't serious about keeping the south and that the rebels haven't the slightest chance of marching into Damascus from there. No, the war is not going well for the rebels. The US knows and couldn't care less.
Nor is the US deeply concerned to hide its real agenda, which is to construct a proxy force from scratch, entirely devoted to fighting IS. (It would therefore be simply wrong to call this force 'rebels'.) Its recruits are to be trained and vetted with the utmost care. This leisurely meticulousness shows an indifference to Syrians' agony that contrasts vividly with the outraged attention devoted to the Yazidis, the Kurds, the Christians, or indeed any minority not at war with Assad.
The overall strategic picture fits suspiciously well with US objectives. The rebels are supplied with just enough to keep Assad from wiping them out except possibly in Aleppo. One can only speculate on why this is allowed to happen, but here's a guess. The US wants both the régime and the rebels exhausted enough to come to some truce or agreement, so that all their resources are turned against IS. Since the US has explicitly stated that its attack on IS helps Assad and that it is not interested in overthrowing him by force, the guess is hardly a wild one.
Not long ago Syrians repeatedly said they fight alone. They still fight alone. America is not their friend or ally. As it fights one of their enemies, it strengthens another with far more Syrian blood on its hands. What's more, the US' fight against IS is only incidentally connected to the fate of Syria's revolutionaries. It will continue whether or not the rebels survive and certainly whether or not activists become pro-US fanboys.
The activists know this. Their embrace of American treachery isn't about America, it's about their inability to choose sides. Syria will remain Assad's torture chamber or it will become an Islamist state repugnant to secularist ideals. This is a hard choice but it is also an obvious choice: the Islamist state is far, far better than Assad. And the embrace of illusions can only facilitate an Assadist victory.
* Here's a rule of thumb. When referring to arms delivered to non-Arabs, "advanced" and "sophisticated" mean advanced and sophisticated. When referring to arms delivered to Arabs, they mean "obsolescent but still serviceable".