On the subject of the Syrian civil war, many Americans maintain that the best the US can possibly do is stay well away — in part because of the lack of clear direction from the top, but also because there are no good guys to support in Syria. Or rather, as Jonathan Spyer told us on our podcast in February, the good guys who could have used our support didn’t get it in time, and it’s too late to empower them now.
An ideal scenario, it is argued, would be for the bad guys to be so focused on destroying one other that they leave Western interests alone. They do seem preoccupied with their own antagonism, so much so that they are not waiting for the fall of Assad to mix it up. Last Thursday, the al-Qaida strain of the rebellion assassinated Kamal Hamami, a top commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA is calling the attack a declaration of war. “We will not let them get away with it…we are going to wipe the floor with them,” said a senior FSA commander.
Hamami (aka Abu Bassir al-Ladkani) was killed at a checkpoint in the Turkmen mountains in Latakia, on the Turkish border, while on a surveillance mission. The al-Qaida-linked people who killed him, members of a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), declared in true Wild West fashion that there wasn’t room in Latakia for the both of them.
The attack was unambiguous and brazen: Abu Ayman al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s Emir of the coastal region, shot Hamami and his brother to death, then sent a third person traveling with the Hamamis to deliver the message that the FSA are considered heretics and its Supreme Council will henceforward be expressly targeted by al-Qaida.
They also put in a phone call. “The Islamic State phoned me saying that they killed Abu Bassir and that they will kill all of the Supreme Military Council,” a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, Qassem Saadeddine, told Reuters. The FSA demanded that ISIL hand over al-Baghdadi within 24 hours or face “justice”. The 24 hours passed without incident.
This is hardly the first assault by al-Qaida on the FSA. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime monitoring organization, has recorded other instances of attacks, including the beheading of an FSA member in Idlib. The FSA and al-Qaida have also cooperated, however, and will likely continue to do so when the expediency of fighting regime forces outweighs the opportunity to stick it to each other. As long as that cooperation continues, American concerns about US arms or aid ending up in al-Qaida hands seem well founded.
Still, it’s difficult to feel particularly sanguine, whether we help the rebels or not. The FSA is behind the eight ball: it can’t defeat Assad without Western help, which is coming in much more slowly and reluctantly than Gulf help for the Islamists; it can’t defeat Assad without cooperating at least on occasion with those same Islamists (who have vowed ultimately to turn their sights on the FSA); and it can’t convince the Western powers to provide unstinting support unless such cooperation ceases.
Al-Qaida, by contrast, is on the ascendant in Syria. Michael Totten’s argument — that we should wait until Assad falls and then supply the FSA so they can fight al-Qaida effectively — makes sense, but the surprising durability of the Assad regime continues to work in al-Qaida’s interest. Al-Qaida’s object, as we know, is nothing less than the disintegration of existing nation-state boundaries and the imposition of one vast Islamic nation across the Middle East. We can stay out of the Syrian mire for the time being, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have one hell of a battle to fight down the road.