Iran sanctions/ Strife in the Syrian opposition
Jul 6, 2012
July 6, 2012
Number 07/12 #01
On Wednesday, there was a “technical” meeting connected with the P5+1/Iran nuclear talks – the upshot of which seems to be that it looks likely high level talks will resume. Meanwhile, Iran has responded to the imposition of new European sanctions by threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz. This Update has some new entries concerning the sanctions regime on Iran. In addition, it includes new analysis of the struggle between Islamists and other forces in the Syrian opposition as the Syrian civil war continues to develop.
First up, noted Israeli financial journalist and Australia/Israel Review columnist Amotz Asa-El makes the case that the sanctions may yet produce political change in Iran, perhaps by next year’s Iranian elections. Asa-El notes a number of admissions by Iran about the extent of the effects the sanctions are having on oil revenues, and regarding consumer prices and resulting public anger. Meanwhile, he notes that Iranian oil is starting to vanish from international markets, yet the markets show little concern, and Asa-El predicts that Iran’s political system will find it virtually impossible to make economic reforms needed to preserve the economic welfare of Iranians. For Asa-El’s valuable argument in full, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz details an important but neglected element of the sanctions regime – the use of financial and insurance restrictions to hamper Iranian oil exports. As Pfeffer discusses, because London remains a major financial hub and the most important world centre for insurance, this important form of sanctions work has been the most effective contribution to the embargo effort by the British government. He also details how the same methods stopped a Russian arms shipment to the Syrian regime. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Arab social media analyst Tyler Golson looks at the situation of the Syrian opposition, with a focus on the increasing rift within Syria between the Free Syrian Army (FSA), affiliated at least in principle with the major exile umbrella opposition coalition in Turkey, and the radical Islamist kata’ib (“brigades”) groups. Golson tells the revealing story of an “Emirate of Homs” set up by the latter, until its head, Lebanese-born Walid al-Boustani, was captured, tried and executed by the FSA. He examined polls and social media in Syria and finds that most Syrians are suspicious of the jihadists, and even inclined to view them as secretly in league with the Assad regime, while preferring a more secularist successor government. To read Golson’s full discussion, CLICK HERE. In addition, British analyst Michael Weiss discusses his contacts with FSA-affiliated Syrian opposition fighters, who claim that the radical Salafist rebel groups are getting extensive outside aid and arms from Saudi Arabia.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Barry Rubin had some choice words about the “decision” taken by the international meeting in Geneva last week to discuss Syria, as does British author and commentator David Pryce-Jones.
- Syria expert Robert Rabil urges the international community to prepare to prevent likely sectarian strife in Syria after the civil war there concludes.
- Military expert Jeffrey White discusses the mounting pressure on the Syrian army and signs it is struggling to cope with the opposition forces.
- Political commentator Adam Garfinkle discusses what can be learnt about Iran’s rulers from last week’s antisemitic speech by Iranian Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi at a United Nations-sponsored conference on the illegal drug trade.
- In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal criticises the extent to which sanctions exemptions on Iran are being provided by Washington.
- An Israeli-American female soldier offers a moving account of being rocketed in a bunker near Sderot.
- A variety of interesting comments on the passing of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, here, here, here, here, here and here.
- AIJAC’s own Dr. Colin Rubenstein commented on his passing in the Australian Jewish News.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- A post on how Israel tried to the help the Palestinian Authority with financial woes caused in part by the refusal of Arab states to pay what they pledged.
- A post on how UNESCO defied their own experts to aid a Palestinian political campaign to get Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity an “emergency” heritage listing.
- A post on UN Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s planned trip to Israel.
- A post analysing the implications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent trip to Israel.
- A post discussing the spiritual leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s call for “liberating” Jerusalem and Palestine to be the “sole goal” of all Muslims.
Commentary: Hyperinflation will pit people against regime that caused it
By Amotz Asa-El
Wall Street Journal “Market Watch”, July 2, 2012, 6:18 a.m. EDT
JERUSALEM (MarketWatch) — There was a time when potential disruptions in Iranian oil exports would rattle energy markets. That’s what happened in 1980, the year after Khomeini overthrew the Shah, when the average daily price of barrel of crude reached $37.42, more than triple its level on the eve of the Islamist Revolution.
Now, even as international sanctions tighten, the markets are almost apathetic. Yes, there was a momentary rally Friday when crude futures climbed some 9%, but that reflected one day’s political dynamics within Europe, not concerns for reduced Iranian supplies.
In all, oil prices have plunged some 25% since the year’s peak of $111.38 a barrel five months ago, and this despite the approach throughout that period of the European Union’s boycott of Iranian oil, which goes into effect this week.
In fact, as the sanctions accelerate, an analysis of Iran’s situation indicates that the economic pressure is working and its social costs are likely to produce political change, possibly surrounding next year’s scheduled presidential election.
Two Iranian admissions of the sanctions’ effectiveness, one from above, the other from below, emerged in recent days.
The first came last week in Moscow, when Mohammad Ali Emadi, an executive for National Iranian Oil Co., told reporters that Iranian oil output has dropped in the wake of the sanctions by “20% to 30%.” That translates to a daily loss of at least $37 million and possibly more than $50 million. This admission followed previous Iranian denials that the sanctions were having any effect.
The other admission rose from the Iranian bazaar, where, via social networks, shoppers recently declared a three-day boycott of bread and milk to protest soaring prices. As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, responses to the campaign have been palpable and people discussed them openly.
Lurking behind these two reports are deep structural problems. The first is energy’s disproportionate share of the Iranian economy, and the second is the failure of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s price reform 18 months ago.
On the eve of the sanctions, revenue from sales of oil and gas financed more than half of government spending. Now, the already sharp drop in sales admitted last week, which foreign analysts suspect is worse than was conceded, stands to go even deeper as EU purchases abruptly end. While the U.S. ceased to buy Iranian oil back in 1979, European purchases continued in earnest, totaling nearly a fifth of the Iranian energy industry’s overall sales.
Such a sudden deletion of revenue would destabilize any economy. The expected joining of sanctions by Japan and South Korea in six months would subtract an additional 25% from Iran’s clientele.
China and India respectively buy 22% and 13% of Iranian crude exports right now, but Washington’s toleration of this commercial axis may also prove temporary, in which case the two Asian powers will have to decide whether risking American commercial punishments is worth the attachment to the Iranian regime.
Iranian oil, in short, is close to pretty much vanishing from global markets, and yet energy markets remain unimpressed.
What, then, has changed since 1980? Three things:
First, during the 1980s developed economies began saving energy where they could, a trend that soon created an oil glut; then the Soviet Union disintegrated and Russia, whose deposits are bigger than Iran’s, began selling outside the former East Bloc; and lastly, Iran’s population doubled, thus increasing its consumption of local oil and gas at the expense of potential exports.
Add to these the past two years of global economic pessimism and you get an Iranian need to sell minerals that is much more urgent than its customers’ need to buy them.
All this is one side of the sanctions’ saga. The other is Iran’s retail market.
During their 33 years in power, the ayatollahs created an elaborate subsidy system that artificially reduced prices of utilities and products, from gas, water and electricity to bread, milk and even tractors.
It was all part of an economic alchemy that took petrodollars for a financial given and took the people for children who could be kept happy on a steady diet of handouts. The result was under-investment in industry, including funds needed for oil drilling and refining, and subsidy spending that gobbled a fifth of the national budget until Ahmedinejad slashed subsidies at the end of 2010.
The reform was inevitable and bold, but as this column explained at the time, it could not work without complementary measures.
Eighteen months on, Tehran has cut some costs — Ahmedinejad cited $114 billion in annual oil subsidies alone — but it has failed to deliver a price reform’s main goal, which is to narrow the gap between demand and supply. On the contrary, inflation has since doubled from 30% to a moderately estimated 60%, while the currency has since lost nearly half its dollar value.
Successful price reforms, like those introduced in post-communist Europe in the 1990s and in Israel in the 1980s, not only abolished subsidies but also slashed import duties, cut defense spending, sold state assets, and empowered central banks to manage monetary policy independently.
Political printing machine
None of this has been happening in Iran. Instead, entrepreneurs are politically suspect, state assets are clutched by the regime and staffed by its cronies, and the central bank’s board includes the finance minister, a unique form of financial incest.
With the agency that is meant to control the politicians’ fiscal appetites functioning instead as their printing machine, it is no wonder that Iran already has in circulation a bill for 500,000 rials, paper money that sells for $40 in the bank and $25 on the sidewalk outside it.
Inflation would have happened in any event, since treating it means delegating power to pragmatic merchants and to Western-minded technocrats. Sanctions, therefore, did not create Iran’s inflation but they dramatically worsen it, as they make it hard not only to get goods and cash into Iran but even to just lead them to its ports.
This week’s European sanctions will further fan today’s double-digit inflation, which will soon be recognized as triple-digit hyperinflation, a punishment that no household can ignore and no politician can excuse. The Iranian customer’s increasingly audible disgruntlement will only grow in coming months.
As long as Ahmedinejad is president, the regime will refuse to emancipate the central bank, deregulate Islamic banking, seriously shed state assets and cut defense spending, just as it won’t compromise on the nuclear program that so many of its trade partners find intolerable.
However, the Ahmedinejad era is now entering the last of its eight years, as he can’t run for a third term in next June’s presidential election. The regime may therefore delude itself that it can somehow muddle through until it installs a pragmatist who will compromise the revolution’s ideals to the minimum necessary to enable the regime to survive.
Then again, discontent with the regime is now reaching new populations, ones that care little for the liberalism that drove previous dissent but care greatly for their increasingly threatened income, savings, employment, housing and dignity. These people can’t likely wait a full political year and then make do with half-hearted reforms.
Watching their money evaporate between their fingers, a growing number of Iranians increasingly ask why they need a leadership whose adventurism’s main cheerleaders are Hugo Chavez and Bashar Assad. Moreover, the millions in Iran who believe the ayatollahs stole their votes three years ago have since seen people power drive other inept Middle East leaders from office.
Between the increasingly restless masses and the economically dilettante ayatollahs, change from within is on its way to Iran, either in the wake of next year’s election or before it, whether peacefully or not.
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It may not rule the waves any longer, but Britannia still rules banks and insurance companies and has been wielding that power to try to foil Tehran’s nuclear plans.
LONDON — American and British diplomats could hardly believe the reports. Not only was Russian President Vladimir Putin opposing any action to end the deepening bloodbath in Syria: now they had irrefutable proof that Russia was sending a shipment of vital arms to Bashar Assad’s forces.
The MV Alaed was steaming south, from the Russian Baltic port of Kaliningrad, in its hold three refurbished Mi-25 heavy attack helicopters, ammunition, missiles and an air-defense system. Choppers like these have been used to bomb rebel forces and civilians.
The ship passed less than 80 kilometers from the coast of Britain bearing a load that violated European Union sanctions against arm shipments to Syria. Yet the vessel was untouchable.
It may have been flying a flag of Curacao, but its ownership was Russian. Any attempt to board would have led to a major diplomatic row with Moscow, dooming all chances of a joint front with Putin on Iran and Syria.
Yet two weeks ago, on June 19, the Alaed turned back. U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said this was due to the EU arms embargo and talks with the Russians. But what had forced the ship to return was the decision by British insurance company Standard Club to notify the vessel’s owners, the Russian cargo carriers Femco, that it was withdrawing insurance from all its ships.
Standard Club said that it had not done so on the government’s instructions, but due to the fact that Femco had “broken internal rules” by contravening an embargo.
Without firing a shot, or using overt threats, the British government succeeded in denying arms that could have been used against civilians and rebels in Syria. It also sent a message to Russia and its allies in the region that Britain still has ways to project power across the globe.
It has been using similar methods for over two years against Iran, in what some diplomats are calling “unprecedented British economic warfare.”
A navy smaller than Brazil’s
At the beginning of last month, when a thousand boats gathered on the Thames to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee, nearly all the vessels were civilian – a far cry from Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897, when a massive armada of 165 Royal Navy warships saluted the empress.
This time around, Britain’s fabled Senior Service would have been capable of mustering no more than a dozen ships not on operational duty.
A prolonged recession and a drastic change in priorities have led Britain to implement cutbacks to its armed forces. As a result the nation that once ruled the waves today has a smaller navy than India, Turkey and Brazil and its armed forces are smaller than Israel’s.
While the generals and admirals warn that deepening cuts will impair the country’s ability to carry out overseas military operations, Britain is playing a leading role in the economic war on Iran, second only to that of the United States. It is a battle being waged with little fanfare, using non-military measures through independent banks and private insurance companies. It is a battle in which one diplomat says that “Britain has redefined the meaning of soft-power.”
“The level of economic warfare being waged by Britain against Iran in recent years is unprecedented in modern times,” says a legal expert who has represented a number of Iranian companies in recent years.
Despite its eclipse as a military and naval power, Britain, especially the City of London, retains its position as a global financial power, not in terms of GDP or assets but as a hub for international transactions.
In 2010, 20 percent of global cross-border banking business was done through London. In April 2010, 36.7 percent of foreign exchange trading and 45.8 percent of financial derivative trading went through banks based in London. The city is also a major hub for the insurance trade, especially in the field of marine insurance. London is the only city where all 20 of the world’s largest insurers and reinsurers are represented, with Lloyd’s of London, the biggest insurance market in the world, at its center.
In October 2009, the British government announced unilateral sanctions on Iran. The UK Treasury ordered all British financial institutions to cease doing business with two Iranian corporations, The Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) and Bank Mellat. These sanctions followed similar measures taken by the United States the previous year but were not in conjunction with the United Nations Security Council or the European Union. In official statements, British ministers explained that the sanctions were to prevent Iran from procuring and importing materials for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
A cat-and-mouse game
The British sanctions were implemented long before similarly sweeping sanctions were agreed upon by the EU and Security Council. According to one diplomat, “it was the way Britain has been pursuing these sanctions, and the power it has through the City of London, that has been increasingly damaging to Iran.” Following the American and British sanctions, what has been described as “a cat-and-mouse” game has developed, with Iran renaming ships, setting up shell corporations and transferring ownership, in an attempt to hide its continuing efforts to import necessary material and components for its nuclear and armament industries and to ship arms to Syria and groups it supports, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
This has led to deepening cooperation on diplomatic, financial and intelligence levels between the UK and Israel, which has often supplied the necessary information for the British government to inform banks and insurance companies of Iranian activities. “Even when we had diplomatic crises and disagreements with the British,” says one former senior Israeli intelligence officer, “we were under strict orders to supply Britain with everything we had on Iran. We gave them the crown jewels of intelligence.”
While the powerful banking and insurance sectors in Britain may have opposed more blatant government intervention, they complied when receiving pinpoint information regarding companies, ships and banks that were to be targeted. “When a bank gets specific details from the government, it will almost always comply with the request,” says a veteran advisor to financial institutions in London. “It is much easier to do that quietly instead of having a row with the government.”
No official figures exist regarding the damage British sanctions have caused the Iranian economy and its nuclear program. Britain has no interest in revealing its hidden hand and the Iranian regime routinely pretends that its economy is strong in the face of sanctions. But Iranian propaganda has for years been singling out Britain, along with the United States and Israel, as nations seeking to undermine Tehran. Western diplomats in London have estimated that “the effect of British insurance companies refusing to cover Iranian ships has made it very hard for Iran to continue importing key components for the nuclear program and send arms to its proxies. It hasn’t made it impossible, but it has often delayed shipments for months.”
There have been many other cases, similar to that of the Alaed, in which ships were forced to turn back when their insurance was suddenly revoked.
London is not only the center for financial organizations, but also the base for two bodies that are central in the coordinated efforts to hamper Iranian operations. Lloyd’s List, the world’s leading shipping daily newsletter, records sales of marine vessels and the UN’s International Maritime Organization tracks shipping and records IMO “hull-numbers,” the vessel’s unique identification number, which remains when the ship changes ownership.
London – a step ahead of the rest in sanctions
Last year, in November, Britain once again imposed sanctions on Iran, this time along with the U.S. and Canada, cutting off all banking ties. The British sanctions were the toughest, it was the first time the UK had ever severed all financial relations with another state and unlike other EU members, it did not wait for the entire Union to vote on the sanctions, as it would do months later, but forged ahead on its own. “In terms of anti-Iran rhetoric, France has been more voluble than Britain,” says one diplomat to the European Union, “but in actions, London is way ahead of Paris and the rest of the EU.”
Some British experts believe their country should not be ahead of the pack on Iran. Sir Richard Dalton, a former ambassador to Iran and today a fellow at the independent policy institute, Chatham House, says that “they (the government) made a mistake in November by adopting certain sanctions unilaterally rather than waiting for others. It was a basic mistake. Iranians use their venomous mistrust of the UK as a cop-out, an excuse for not addressing the problems substantively.”
The Iranians certainly blamed Britain. A week after the sanctions were announced, a thousand Iranians stormed the British embassy in Tehran, ransacked the offices, smashed a portrait of the Queen and burnt the flag. While the Iranian government expressed its “regret” over the attack and tried to salvage diplomatic relations, the Cameron government decided to cut off all diplomatic relations and expel all Iranian diplomats within 48 hours.
Meanwhile, the British efforts have continued. In March, SWIFT, the company that handles international financial transactions cut Iran off its network. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to praise the decision of the Belgium-based company. His aides leaked that it was the Israeli leader’s urging that had brought about the move. In fact, says one diplomat who was involved, much of SWIFT’s transactions go through the City of London’s banking systems, and it was the Cameron government that played the central role.
This week, on July 1, new EU sanctions came into effect, banning further oil imports by its members but more crucially, forbidding European insurance companies from insuring oil tankers, of any country, carrying Iranian oil.
This sanction has serious implications for countries such as South Korea and Japan, major importers of oil from Iran, since their tankers were underwritten by British insurers. In recent months, senior officials from both countries were in London and Brussels, trying frantically to postpone implementation of the new restriction. The British government firmly opposed their efforts.
While Iran has slashed the price of its oil, countries who continue to purchase it now need to set aside billions of dollars for insurance cover, which will encourage them to find alternative suppliers and further damage Iran’s economy.
The forceful policy of economic warfare against Iran is being directed from the very top. Prime Minister David Cameron dedicated the first foreign policy meeting of his new National Security Council in 2010 to the Iranian issue and his foreign minister William Hague and Chancellor of Exchequer, George Osborne are described by insiders as “extremely hawkish” on Iran, urging their civil servants to enforce the sanctions. Diplomats in London give a number of reasons for this policy.
“It is a way for Britain to prove to the United States that it is its key ally in the world,” says one. “It also gives the British who have lost their military power a chance to act as if they are still a super-power, thanks to their financial position.”
“A lot of the support for the sanctions is for want of a better alternative and sometimes they are in place to keep Israel happy and prevent military action,” says Lord Norman Lamont, who served as Chancellor of Exchequer in the early 1990s and is today the president of the UK-Iran Chamber of Commerce. “It seems also that they have brought the Iranians to negotiating table.”
“The UK and Israel are working extremely closely together on Iran and there is a great measure of cooperation and constant dialogue between the two countries,” says Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould. “We share the sense of threat and we are clear that we need to be pursuing a diplomatic solution, while continuing to ramp up the economic pressure.”
How Long Can the Free Syrian Army Hold Off Its Islamist Rivals?
The New Republic, June 25, 2012
If you want to know where the fourteen month-old Syrian revolution against President Bashar al-Assad is headed, the case of Walid al-Boustani provides a useful rubric. Al-Boustani led an ill-fated “Islamic Emirate of Homs” that lasted only a few weeks. Apparently the locals did not appreciate having an “Emir” who kidnapped and murdered their people while claiming to wage jihad against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And so in March 2012 a local brigade of the Free Syrian Army executed the Lebanese-born al-Boustani, amidst accusations that the jihadist was not only a traitor to the Syrian revolution but also, in fact, an agent of the Syrian regime.
The incident is part of a larger clash that has mostly gone overlooked in the Western media—namely, the struggle between Syria’s two main armed opposition groups, groups that represent two radically different visions for Syria’s future. In that way, it’s not enough to simply know—as a recent article in the New York Times pointed out—that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with assistance from the CIA, are funneling arms and cash to certain Syrian rebel groups via intermediaries in Turkey. It’s also important to know that the other rebel groups—those with an Islamist political agenda—that the United States and its allies have decided not to support are distrusted by the Syrian people themselves. Indeed, Washington’s largely hands-off approach to the Syria crisis has so far been greatly assisted by the Syrian public’s broad rejection of the hardcore Islamist rebels. But there’s no telling how much longer America’s strategic interests and the Syrian people’s sympathies will remain in sync.
THE FACTION OF the Syrian opposition that has been the main recipient of foreign arms is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella organization headquartered in Turkey and encompassing upwards of a hundred semi-autonomous battalions of defected Syrian soldiers and armed civilians. Though many individual units and fighters loyal to the FSA adopt a conservative Islamic idiom and may express their struggle as “jihad,” the FSA central leadership espouses pluralist, nationalist, and even democratic ideals, reflecting its broad base of support in Syria, as well as the influence of its international sponsors.
The second group (broadly construed) vying for primacy of the Syrian armed opposition is the constellation of independent, hardcore Islamist “kata’ib” (brigades) claiming to wage violent jihad against the infidel Assad regime and its Shia backers, Iran and Hezbollah. The independent jihadist opposition draws from an expanding domestic pool of young men who feel abandoned by the international community and emboldened by the popularity of their radical Islamist cause beyond Syria’s borders and over social media.
The good news is that, Syrians mostly distrust the hardcore Islamists. While much of the public is liable to celebrate any attack against government forces, they remain deeply suspicious of the numerous, independent jihadist groups taking root throughout the country. A public opinion survey conducted by the US Institute of Peace in September 2011 found that only 35 percent of Syrians see religion as an important issue in the anti-government demonstrations, with less than 14 percent preferring religious leaders or parties to lead a post-Assad Syria as compared to 66 percent who viewed “democratically-elected leaders” as the most qualified.
Compounding Syrians’ ideological unease with jihadists is the widespread concern that Islamist groups have either been infiltrated by, or are directly working for the Syrian regime. Western media mostly overlooked the story of Walid al-Boustani, the would-be Emir of Homs, but the video of Boustani’s “trial” and execution by the FSA stirred considerable speculation among Arab audiences, who focused not on Boustani’s specific crimes but rather on his ties to a discredited Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group back in Lebanon, Fatah al-Islam, which is widely believed to be a tool of Syrian intelligence.
It is well-established that the Syrian government in the past facilitated the transit of fighters to Al-Qaeda in Iraq through Syria in order to fight American coalition forces—and some of these battle-hardened jihadists have likely come back to Syria. But the Assad regime’s understanding with Islamic extremists has always been to allow them to attack their common enemy as long as they did not operate within Syria itself. This deal with the devil spared Syria from terrorist attacks for nearly 30 years, but the upshot is that any jihadist group emerging in Syria today—especially one whose operations and rhetoric so neatly validate the regime’s narrative of a terrorist conspiracy—is immediately suspected of being a government creation.
The most prominent example of these deep-seated suspicions among Syrians is the popular perception of a group named Jabhat al-Nusra (JN, also known as the Al-Nusra Front), that has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings across the country. The majority of Syrians—according to anecdotal evidence from Syrian social media sites—believe that all of JN’s claimed operations were in fact perpetrated by the regime’s thugs. This, despite the fact that JN’s statements are carried over official Al-Qaeda internet channels, and despite assertions by Western intelligence agencies that JN is an Al-Qaeda affiliate bent on bringing down the Syrian regime.
Ultimately, it makes sense that Syrians seem to be mostly pragmatic about their revolution. With the Syrian opposition containing so many different sects, ethnicities, tribes, and political affiliations, an insistence on ideological purity is a hindrance to the greater goal of ousting the regime. Indeed, whereas independent jihadist groups are ideologically bound to reject any help from “infidels and traitor governments,” Free Syrian Army units freely accept cash and increasingly sophisticated arms, including anti-tank weaponry, from Gulf patrons, facilitated in part by non-lethal American assistance.
Given a choice between building on the FSA’s head start in arms, manpower and political connections, and starting from scratch with the jihadi brigades, Syrians clearly prefer to stick with the FSA. Even if most FSA-affiliated brigades still get 90 percent of their arms from sources other than the centralized leadership and derive little tangible benefit from its connections and legitimacy, there is no organization that commands more respect than the FSA. The question is: What happens if America and its allies are seen to be ineffectual in their aid to the popular opposition? Will Syrians turn to someone else for help?
Already there are reports that some rebel arms distributors are chafing at the strings Saudi Arabia has attached to its weapons transfers, while independent Salafi sheikhs and “honorable businessmen” stand ready and willing to support militant groups outside of the FSA’s umbrella. The independent Islamist brigades would be helped considerably if they organized their own umbrella organization to unify their ranks under the banner of jihad. (A new rebel group with moderate Islamist credentials calling itself the “Syrian Revolutionaries Front” tried to do just that earlier this month, though it seems that the effort immediately fizzled.)
If a unified jihadist opposition did manage to challenge the Free Syrian Army’s primacy in the coming months, it could be an ominous indicator of where Syria’s opposition is heading. We could see the Free Syrian Army’s central leadership beginning to placate the Islamists by adopting Islamist rhetoric or institutions such as a sharia council, or Saudi Arabia starting to hedge its support of the FSA by taking meetings with upstart Islamist “emirs.” Either way, it would mean that the jihad is very much on in Syria. It would also mean that the United States had better rethink its hands-off approach to the crisis.
Tyler Golson is an Arabic social media analyst with Concepts & Strategies, Inc.