Media-Savvy Syrian Rebels Set Pot Field on Fire, Highlight Knowledge Gap on Makeup of Syrian Opposition


Rebels from the Farouq Brigades have set a marijuana field on fire and posted the footage on Facebook. Some think that the move betrays an ideological inclination. From Wired:

It's because the Farouq Brigades, generally considered a competent and media-savvy rebel militia, is promoting its willingness to destroy a drug crop. That's an action usually identified more with Islamic militant groups than secular ones. And it goes to show how little the U.S. still knows about the Syrian opposition, even as Washington debates directly arming the rebels.

The articles continues, highlighting how little analysts know about the group:

Both White and Joe Holliday, a research analyst watching Syria for the Institute for the Study of War, consider the Farouq Brigade "moderately Islamist" — that is, neither secular nor Salafi. They don't employ the hardcore tactics of the jihadis, like suicide bombings or stuffing captured government soldiers into trucks filled with explosives. And while some of their fighters wear black headbands of jihadis and display "these types of jihadi symbols in their appearance," Holliday says, "it's hard to parse out whether that's just the style right now."

In Syria, even being a "moderate Islamist" group, whatever that actually means, isn't necessarily a fixed position. It could just as easily be a branding of convenience for organizations seeking access to weaponry — from whatever source. "The question is, is that a cover for getting weapons and aid [from Gulf states], so they're not really Islamist very much at all; or are they really Islamist and pretending to be moderate?" White says. "No one knows for sure." And that's after studying the groups' actions and statements for months.

Such uncertainty about who exactly is fighting Assad should make policy-makers wary about sending them support. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Mitt Romney has spoken in support of arming the Syrian rebels. In the Senate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have all called for American support for the Syrian rebels. That Al-Qaeda elements are active in the Syrian rebellion is no secret, and Pentagon officials have raised concerns about weapons proliferation in the area. 

Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeman, has expressed concern about other country's wepaons reaching these groups:

We've been clear from the beginning that there are issues here as to where this goes and that we need to all work hard to ensure that extremists, jihadists, al-Qaida, other groups who don't share our larger interest in seeing a democratic Syria emerge from all of this, get their hands on weapons that can be used to exploit the situation, that this truly be an effort on the opposition's side which reflects a Syria whose future will be democratic, whose future will be inclusive, whose future will reject extremism.

It is good that the State Department is wary of Saudi and Qatari weapons reaching the wrong people in Syria, let's hope that the administration isn't persuaded that getting more involved in Syria would be without similar risks.

The situtation in Syria is not going to get better if the rebels receive American support. In Syria both Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah elements are being pitted against eachother. It is a mess we would do well to avoid.