- Last Updated: 10:47 PM, November 18, 2012
- Posted: 10:34 PM, November 18, 2012
Paris - ‘Give us arms to defend ourselves,” says Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, who is touring European capitals as the newly elected president of the Syrian Coalition of Opposition Forces.
The coalition has brought together most, though not all, groups and parties fighting Bashar al-Assad’s despotic regime in Damascus. Several major Western powers, including the United States, have already recognized it as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Indeed, the unification of opposition groups has been a persistent demand of the Obama administration within the 100-plus-nation Friends of Syria Conference.
So Khatib’s demand for arms carries more weight than similar appeals from the divided opposition since the uprising started almost 20 months ago. But, with the desired unity achieved, should American and its allies start shipping arms to Syrian rebels? Yes — with qualifications.
To start with, the Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized opposition group; under various labels, it has a controlling majority. Thus formal unity could lead to uniformity — and the emergence of a new one-party rule to replace the present one under Assad.
The new setup also repeats another disturbing aspect of the Assad regime: dividing Syrians across ethnic and sectarian lines with some communities obtaining a larger place (notably, thanks to pressure from Turkey, the Turkmen). In contrast, communities such as the Christians and Druze have only a token presence.
“Religious scholars” also have a disproportionately large presence. Khatib himself, though trained as a geologist, was a preacher in the Umayyid Mosque in Damascus.
Yet Syria’s popular uprising was not prompted by religious grievances, and Islamist groups (including the Brotherhood) joined in long after it had started. It is, therefore, important to make sure that the unity demanded by the Obama administration does not translate into uniformity in the service of Washington’s new alliance with the Brotherhood.
Still, the Syrian people must be armed to defend themselves against Assad’s infernal war machine.
The rebels now control at least five chunks of territory across Syria — areas that could become safe havens to protect the civilian population. Because Assad depends on his air force to bomb the population, protecting those safe havens with no-fly zones is growing urgent.
But giving the new unified opposition a blank check would be unwise. It should be persuaded to agree to a charter of values depicting a clear vision of post-Assad Syria. This should include commitment to multiparty democratic rule, changes of government through free elections, the rule of law, gender equality, freedom of religion and expression and respect for cultural and linguistic diversity.
Who would organize the first post-Assad election is also of paramount importance. A Brotherhood-dominated transitional authority could produce an artificial majority for a movement that, though important, represents only a segment of Syrian society.
In other words, Western democracies should be on the side of a democratic vision of Syria — exactly what Syrians have been demanding since they started their movement in Dera’a in 2010.
Right now, a lot of arms are going to Islamist groups who have jumped on the bandwagon of the popular revolt in the past few months. Such groups as Liwa al-Islam (The Banner of Islam) and Ansar al-Allah (Companions of God) consist mostly of non-Syrian Arab fighters with ideological (though perhaps not formal) links to al Qaeda.
Thus, while arming genuinely Syrian groups, the Western powers must be careful not to strengthen jihadists coming from all over the world to obtain martyrdom tickets to paradise.
The struggle for Syria may be moving toward its final phases. So it is imperative to prepare for the post-Assad period to make sure that Syria doesn’t move from one form of dictatorship to another.Follow @NYPostOpinion