HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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The Civil War in Syria and the US-backed Opposition

The revolution in Syria has been touched on briefly earlier in this blog, however in light of recent events and our discussion about Al Qaeda in class, it seems fitting take another look at what’s been going on.

The US has been supplying aid and weapons to the Syrian opposition for some time now. This opposition, the Free Syrian Army and a mixture of other various militias, includes the Al-Nusra Front. The Al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat al-Nusra, is the opposition. They’re the muscle. They’re the armed militants who account for the overwhelming majority of deaths, both military and civilian. They’re also blacklisted by the US as a terrorist organization (as of December 2012).

Last week al-Nusra swore loyalty to al-Qaeda. This essentially solidifies that the core of their front and the Syrian opposition movement is Jihadi Islamism in order to establish an Islamic state over the secular state that currently exists under President al-Assad. Their goal is to create a state run under sharia law and to reinstate the Caliphate. How will they achieve this? Just as they have attempted to in the past: by carrying out suicide bombings and attacks against government and civilian targets. The FSA claims they don’t support the ideology of al-Nusra, yet they continue to operate with them.

So why is it that the US continues to support them?

There seems to be a popular belief that President Assad is bad and the rebels are good, when the truth is neither are good. They’re both killing innocent people in order to establish what they think is the appropriate and only true way to rule. President Assad and the socialist Ba’ath party have a history of violent oppression within their secular, socialist states, and with the Syrian opposition there exists US-supported extremist mercenaries running around killing any who are deemed unfit to exist in their Islamic state.

These Islamist militias, including al-Nusra, have been receiving millions from the US under the supervision from the CIA across the region for years. The Obama administration has declared publicly that the US is ensuring that this support is reaching the right groups in the opposition. However with no clear articulation of who the “right people” are, or what “opposition forces” are receiving such aid, it is likely that the flood of arms and money going into Syria has and will continue to end up in the hands of al-Qaeda forces.

This entire situation screams Afghanistan 1979, when US-backed mujahideen forces and the Soviet-backed Afghan government clashed in a bloody war which took millions of lives, led to a civil war, and prompted the war in Afghanistan.

What is the United States’ endgame here? Is it right for the United States to support one side during a nation’s civil war? Is US support for this “opposition” and the Islamist militias simply an effort to destabilize the country in order to legitimize further involvement in the region?


– James Greathouse


Resources: (Warning: some graphic images)



  1. mjuren3 says:

    It’s interesting that you say al-Nursa was identified as a terrorist organization in December 2012 as the U.S. government has at least appeared to be hesitant to intervene in the Syrian civil war until very recently for fear of weapons and supplies falling into the wrong hands. I remember talking in class about Kerry’s announcement that the U.S. had decided to give supplies to the rebels so it’s weird to me that we would decide to help the rebels after we had identified that elements of the rebel force were terrorist organizations. And if the government is supporting them looking for an excuse for continued intervention in the Middle East I don’t think anyone will buy it.

  2. jdowling6 says:

    Very deep questions you ask here. I was perusing through the photos in the later links and it is just horrible to see children getting wounded. All I really see is a game of chess match going on here and war for the sake of war. How can al-Nursa be identified as a terrorist organization when their opposition does not get the same label? Whatever the reason fueling the flame was never a good idea in the first place by either superpower. Intervention intervention intervention…

  3. trishapintavorn says:

    I was under the impression we weren’t supplying weapons but only humanitarian aid. Kerry said that he believed weapons were falling into the hands of moderates but I believe it isn’t us that’s providing them. I think it’s a good idea in theory to try to fund moderate opposition groups but it’s difficult because you don’t know what the end game will be or whether funding will fall into the hands of groups antithetical to our national interests. I believe that we don’t want to get involved in Syria because it will undoubtedly be messy, and that’s why we’ve been dragging our feet on the issue for so long.

    • jbholleman says:

      I was under the impression that we were supplying humanitarian aid as well as military advisers. The idea behind funding moderate groups is that you get a say in what happens afterward because they are in your debt. Of course, the people don’t always see it that way and like you said, we should generally stay out of these messy issues.

  4. marymsherman says:

    Maybe I’m optimistic, but I am hoping that the US has learned that throwing money and arms at a group with aligned personal interests doesn’t work. Reading the comments, I’m hoping for just humanitarian aid, but I’m skeptical. This reminds me also of the Iranian revolution where the “opposition” constituted many varying beliefs. All of them were aligned against the Shah, but the one that took power was not the one that represented the entire rebel group. It was the most powerful and organized out of the group. Hopefully this kind of history doesn’t repeat itself in Syria in the near future.

  5. It is interesting to see this issue from the U.S.’s aspect, because Chinese government is on the opposite side of the opposition. I agree with you that there is no one side in this internal war can be defined as the good side. So there is no right or wrong to support either side. However, like what you have said, they are all evil because they kill innocent people in order to achieve their ideological political goal. Moreover, I think I stay with my principle in this case, that foreign powers should not intervene with a internal war. Merchants can cell both sides weapons, as long as there is no governmental support for either side.

  6. flambert3 says:

    It is interesting to examine how the US choose allies and backs certain groups. I think this is one of the main critiques of the US. Some groups that are against all US beliefs but we sometimes find that if we back them we have an opportunity else where. I think it can be a bit hypocritical at times but I don’t know if this is just a US thing or something that always happens in policy.

  7. kledbetter6 says:

    The U.S. usually has an official ideological reason for backing certain groups, and other economic or political reasons are revealed later. In this case, I can’t see any reason for the U.S. supporting the rebels. Both sides are killing innocents, both sides have ideologies U.S. policy doesn’t agree with (e.g. non-democratic means of rule), and furthermore the U.S. doesn’t have anything apparent to gain if the rebels win, except perhaps a government that is more cooperative. It also seems that uninformed popular support in this country does seem to support the rebel groups, so perhaps this is a domestic political move as well.

  8. Jeffrey Lester says:

    This is such a strange situation. I’m not comfortable with our government playing any part of this and I’m not sure to what end we are trying to achieve. It’s so sketchy and underhanded I’d just assume that we stay out of it instead of adding fuel to the fire. I feel really bad for the Syrian people who have to deal with this on a regular basis.

  9. nathenj65 says:

    I agree with Jeffrey here that this truly is a strange situation. It appears that in attempting to stop a foreign conflict we have instead just created a longer engagement in which it is increasingly hard to figure out which side we are on and which side we are supporting. While all of this political manipulating is going on with countries supporting both sides of the conflict in Syria it appears that the people are receiving the bad end of everything that occurs for other side. This is the worst situation that in no matter who is helped on either side the people are the ones that are going to get hurt. In order for there to be any appearance of light at the end of this tunnel instead of funding for more violence i believe that instead we should be working on disarming and not supplying both sides of this conflict so that more innocent civilians aren’t harmed in the process.

  10. jkipp3 says:

    It’s so stupid, because if one group would just concede to the other, they would all be better off. The place is a wasteland. How do they plan on resisting Western influence when they have no human capital or infrastructure to build their own businesses?

  11. nholdaway3 says:

    I haven’t heard of anything recently in Syria. I the last time I read something, it was Russia was still supporting the government while the US was sending medical aid to the rebels. I find it hard to believe the US would willingly send guns to a known supporter of Al-Qaeda, especially since the mess it made in 1979 Afghanistan.

  12. mcharles6 says:

    I agree with the earlier comments that our government shouldn’t be involved. It doesn’t appear that our government has helped at all. If anything, U.S. involvement has only escalated the conflict. I understand the logic that the U.S. wanted to help the Syrian people who were suffering because of their government, but the U.S. has gotten involved, the conflict has escalated, and it is still the Syrian people who are suffering. I’m not sure what exact approach the U.S. should take or what the government’s motives are, but the current situation definitely makes me uncomfortable.

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