Rarely do Americans receive from the domestic mainstream press accurate information about the rebel groups fighting in Syria. According to reports from the Obama administration and buttressed by allied media groups, the faceless rebels are united in fighting a noble war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The real truth is that various rebel factions are engaged against the Assad regime while simultaneously fighting amongst themselves.
Key rebel groups in Syria include the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic State of Iraq, and the Nusra Front.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), backed by the U.S. and other western governments, is believed by many to represent the core of the “legitimate” opposition to Assad. The organization was formed by defectors from the Syrian Armed Forces and formally announced its formation in July of 2011. From its inception, the FSA was led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad. A reorganization in 2012 saw Brigadier General Salim Idris elected as the organization’s chief of staff. That election came at a meeting held in the Turkish City of Antalia. According to Reuters, the talks were attended by “Security officials from the United States, Britain, France, the Gulf, and Jordan….” Despite the backing of Western states, the FSA has seen important defections from its ranks in recent months, with entire units joining other, radical rebel and al-Qaeda affiliated groups.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been the beneficiary of some of those leaving the FSA. ISIL was founded in 2003 in order to fight the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was originally led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a prolific terrorist, friend of Osama bin Laden, and a cold-blooded killer. It is believed that Zarqawi was the man who beheaded American hostages Nick Berg and Eugene Armstrong. Two years after murdering Berg and Armstrong, Zarqawi was himself killed by laser-guided bombs dropped by two American F-16 fighters. Despite Zarqawi’s death, the group continued its terrorist operations and persecuting Christians in Iraq. In 2009, the group claimed responsibility for bombings in Iraq that claimed the lives of nearly 300 people. The group conducted similar attacks in 2012. In 2013, the group was behind an audacious prison break at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison where it employed car bombs, suicide bombers, mortars and rockets to break out as many as 500 prisoners. In mid-September, fighters from the group successfully captured the town of Azaz near the Turkish border that had previously been under the control of another rebel group, the Northern Storm Brigade.
The Al-Nusra Front announced its formation on January 23, 2012. Many of its members have been traced back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s network in Iraq where they fought against U.S. forces. The group’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, affirmed in a recorded message, according to Agence France Presse, its loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda.
Far from being united against Bashar al-Assad, these groups have turned on one another.
According to Lauren Williams reporting The Daily Star in Beirut, “Divisions between opposition factions are multiplying in Syria’s north, further complicating an already chaotic battle ground….”
Williams reported that ISIL has attacked the Al-Nusra front, capturing a regional headquarters along with weapons and oil production equipment. Meanwhile, tensions remain high near Azaz where a cease-fire between the Northern Storm Brigade and ISIL hinges on whether ISIL will hand over hostages captured during the fighting there.
The chaotic situation is being used by the Free Syrian Army to buttress claims that it needs Western help. “We are fighting on two fronts now,” said FSA spokesman Louay Moqdad in a statement to the The Daily Star in reference to efforts against both the Assad government and the other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. “So there is the proof that we are not cooperating with Al-Qaeda.”
Meanwhile, the fighting between the disparate factions and government troops has placed one of the oldest Christian communities at risk. Speaking to USA Today, one Syrian Christian said, “The Christians now live in terror.” When rebel forces attacked the Christian town of Maaloula, Christian men from nearby communities flocked to Syrian government forces in an effort to repel the rebels.
“Many of us came from the next town and about 30 others came from Bab Touma and Qassa,” a Christian who wished to remain anonymous told USA Today. “We heard that Jabhat al-Nusra (was) kidnapping girls and destroying churches in Maaloula, so we went there for three days to fight al-Nusra.
The precarious position of Christians in Syria is one thing that is consistent across all areas of the Middle East where the so-called “Arab Spring” has arisen. Whether in Egypt, Iraq, Syria or elsewhere, Christians are being driven from the ancestral cradle of the Church.
Lord Sachs, the retiring Chief Rabbi in England, compared the ejection of Christians from the Middle East to ethnic cleansing.
“I think this is a human tragedy that is going almost unremarked,” he said in remarks to the London Telegraph. I don’t know what the name for this is, it is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.”
According to Lord Sachs, “Between half a million and a million Christians have left Iraq. At the beginning of the 19th century Christians represented 20 per cent of the population of the Arab world, today two per cent. This is a story that is crying out for a public voice, and I have not heard an adequate public voice.”
While the Al-Nusra Front and ISIL could never be expected to respect the rights of Christians, the Free Syrian Army, supported by the West, has likewise been implicated in the religious ethnic cleansing bemoaned by Lord Sachs.
In March, the Catholic news agency Fides reported: “…in Homs there ‘is an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians,’ carried out by some Islamist members of the [FSA’s] ‘Brigade Faruq.’ So says a note sent of Fides by some sources in the Syrian Orthodox Church, which includes 60% of Christians in Syria. Militant armed Islamists — says the note — have managed to expel 90% of the Christians in Homs and confiscated their homes by force.”
While other reports given to Fides by Jesuits in Homs indicate that many Christians left their homes on their own, the fact remains that in the city of Homs a very large Christian community has virtually disappeared. As of March, Fides estimated that only 1,000 Christians remained in Homs. Prior to the fighting, the Christian population there was 160,000.
The Moral Liberal Associate Editor, Dennis Behreandt, is the Founder and Editor In Chief of the American Daily Herald. Mr. Behreandt has written hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from natural theology to history and from science and technology to philosophy. His research interests include the period of late antiquity in European history as well as Medieval and Renaissance history.