Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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What Do Syrian Rebels Want?

by Elliott Abrams
September 27, 2012


What do Syrian rebels want? “The vast majority of Syrian opposition activists, according to a new, systematic survey of more than 1,000 of them, express relatively moderate views about Islamic issues. They also voice support for many key democratic values — and most look to the West and other democracies for inspiration and protection.”

The poll was commissioned by the International Republican Institute and conducted by Pechter Polls, and was described in a Washington Post article by David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

This poll is a welcome antidote to the excuse, offered by Obama administration officials and others seeking to defend American passivity in the Syrian conflict, that a key reason for staying out is that if Assad is ousted his successors will be Islamic extremists. Of course, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As time has passed since the rebellion began, more and more jihadis have arrived in Syria; a year ago there were very few. And as time has passed, Islamist elements have received assistance from Gulf sources while more moderate elements have received precious little help from the United States.

The solution is not to abandon Syria to extremist influence once Assad falls. It is instead to strengthen those elements we would like to see in power after Assad. One way to do this is through our humanitarian aid, which should be delivered via groups whose beliefs are closer to our own about Syria’s future. The other is to deliver non-lethal and lethal aid to such groups, which will obviously help them gain influence now and after Assad.

But if the only actors in Syria are Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran on one side, and Gulf suppliers of aid to Muslim Brotherhood and more extreme groups on the other, the moderate groups that appear to represent the desires of most Syrians will be weakened. That is where we stand today and will continue to stand at least until the election–and there is some evidence that administration officials understand the dangers their passive policy has created: “U.S. and Western diplomats are concerned that the longer Bashar al-Assad hangs on to his failing regime in Damascus, the more likely it is that the aftermath of the Syrian rebellion will be dominated by Islamist elements,” an analysis in National Journal stated. One can only hope that once the political season is over American policy will change, to protect our own interests in the Levant and help Syrians defeat both the regime and the extremists and jihadis who would like to rule in its place.




Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by EthanP

    It is my firm belief that if the Obama administration thought that the Muslim Brotherhood or a pro Iranian regime would come to power in Syria, they would be doing more. I truely believe that they expected that in Lyibia and were surprised by the election. After all. This administration has backed the replacement of several America friendly governments for hostile regimes.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    This would seem to be an obvious answer to the situation . But you can’t present Obama with “obvious answers” . He’s too obtuse and easily confused .

  • Posted by Neville Craig

    Why are US commentators so reluctant to mention Qatar?
    It might upset the location of two US military bases there?

    One recent source estimated Qatar is providing the majority of the funding to the Brotherhood’s attempted Assad ousting.
    Their PM al-Thani said ‘We should do whatever necessary to help…including giving them weapons’.

    Qatar’s self-interested efforts to get their gas to market by any means possible shows more ‘unfettered market’ idiocies.

  • Posted by Kevin Bayona

    The President should eschew military intervention, but aid moderate pro-American rebels and factions in order to cement American influence within whatever government emerges after Assad falls.

    A hostile Syria goverened by Islamic fundamentalists will not bode well for the United States in the event it finds itself at war with Iran (which is likely).

  • Posted by Josh

    Here we go again, the neocons are trying to drag us into yet another war. Mr. Abrams, do you honestly believe you can collect data that is truly representative of the Syrian population during a civil war? This is a time when it is extremely difficult to get even journalists on the ground for accurate reporting. Don’t be fooled, this poll is not representative and should in no way be used as evidence that the Syrian rebels are mostly moderate. We don’t know the make-up of the opposition. All we know is that there are a loose network of moderates coordinating their efforts with more extreme Jihadists to overthrow a tyrant. By the way, the extremists are much more trained, better equiped, and more disciplined in their tactical maneuvers which suggests that after the rebels overthrow Assad, extremists would be in a better position to take control of the country, not moderates. Thus, you are talking about a very steep uphill battle to replace Syrian regime with a pro-american democratic regime. Iraq would look like a cake-walk compared to Syria. Do not get involved, we have no business there. Support humanitarian and non-lethal aid, that is all.

  • Posted by canadiansyrian

    its not what do syrian rebles want , its what the 75% sunni Arabs want .
    they want the Assad gang rule over .
    isnt 40 years enough ?

    the end of the Assad gang will signal the end of the Ayatoolas`s dream.

    a Sunni -secular-rule in syria is the best out come to happen to Syria and America and Isreal.

  • Posted by steve

    The author has no idea what “the rebels” – as if they are one group – want. One unscientific poll inside a country like Syria in the middle of a civil war is worthless. I could come up with another saying the opposite. I will make a prediction: should the rebels win they will be Islamic fundamentalists of one stripe or the other. Has no one learned anything from our misadventure in Iraq, from the elections in Egypt?

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