from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

What Do Syrian Rebels Want?

September 27, 2012

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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.