The question of defining a 'moderate' rebel in Syria's civil war bedevils the US as it works to fulfill its plan, announced by President Obama on 10 September, to arm and train anti-ISIS groups in Syria.
The term 'moderate' is thrown around with gay abandon without anyone defining exactly what they mean by it. And with good reason. It is first and foremost a relative and not an absolute term. Notice how often we write 'moderate' in inverted commas when using the term? Someone Riyadh considers a moderate could well be a raging Salafist to a Western audience, while someone considered a moderate by the West would likely be not sufficiently Islamic to placate many in the Gulf. This interview from April is a good example of the complexity of the Syrian battlespace and why the term 'moderate' should be considered extremely subjective.
But Western politicians of all persuasions would have you believe that a moderate rebel is 'someone that we can do business with', which is a rather vacuous idea, since you can only ever measure how moderate a person is when they are actually in a position to wield power. On the path to success, people and groups (particularly in the Middle East) are likely to say whatever it takes to get external support.
The proposition that Washington can find (or create) a group of 'moderate' rebels to back as part of its plan to degrade and defeat ISIS while not sowing the seeds of a future disaster is full of holes. A couple of issues spring to mind:
First, the countries that have been mooted as possible training locations for the 'moderates' have their own agendas regarding Syria and are hardly liberal democracies, so it is reasonable to assume that they will seek to advance their own interests and agendas (including the place of religion in society) while saying the right things about the need for an inclusive, moderate armed opposition. That paragon of moderation, Saudi Arabia, has agreed to host training for the neo-secular moderate opposition, and discussions appear to be ongoing regarding Turkey's role. President Erdogan's AKP is a modern Islamist party, and the President himself has been complicit (either by commission or omission) in the mess that is Syria by concentrating simply on felling Assad without giving any consideration to what to do when he didn't fall.
Second, the US will have no effective control over the actions and equipment of these 'moderate' forces once they cross the border back into Syria. Why would any right thinking moderate commander do Washington's bidding when he knows that today's US liaison team will be rotated out long before the war is ever concluded? You can try to sub-contract the oversight to 'friendly' regional nations but the problem remains. You can't insulate the weapons, training and logistics support in such a manner that they only provide an advantage to the moderates and not the Islamists, who inhabit the battlefield in greater numbers. As this piece argues, so-called vetted groups' weapons and operations are already directly supporting al Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra as well as Salafist groups under the Islamic front umbrella.
Even after the ISIS threat is addressed, there is still the question of what to do about Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and myriad other Islamist groups inhabiting the Syrian battlefield. None of them have fixed personnel rosters, and individuals can and do travel between them depending on battlefield success, resource availability, leadership disagreement or doctrinal differences. Some will undoubtedly find their way into the 'moderate' groups currently being 'vetted' for training in 'liberal' regional countries.
Trying to find enough 'moderates' to form a critical mass and then training them in countries whose governments have contributed to creating the Islamist morass in Syria in the first place will be near impossible, and will ultimately create the conditions for further instability. Only this time the West will have contributed directly to it.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Freedom House.