Here’s one way to understand the Syrian Rebels: think of them as the gangsters in Quentin Tarantino’s film Reservoir Dogs.
Secretary of State John Kerry famously called the Free Syria Army “moderate” in Senate testimony about Syrian rebels last week. There’s a grain of truth in that statement but it completety ignores the wider picture.
On one hand, there’s plenty of friction between the Free Syria Army and the Al Qaeda linked Islamist jihadists. Here’s a scene that’s real, but it could have come straight out of a Tarantino script. It describes relations between the factions from journalist Martin Chulov’s Guardianarticle American threats widen fault lines among Syria’s rebels. We open on a restaurant:
Kalashnikovs are laid across tables next to salt and pepper shakers, which the waiters gently rearrange to serve plates of grilled chicken and salads. “Let him have it,” joked one hulking Libyan as a waiter shifted a rifle to find space for a plate of hummous. “We can take him outside and show him how to use it.”
The four men around him, jihadists from elsewhere in the Arab world, laughed among themselves and looked around to see another group enter. They too had come from far away for jihad — first against the Assad regime and now the US, again.
At a table down the hall, a group of Free Syrian Army fighters were enjoying a late lunch beside an olive grove, wondering out loud what regime targets the US would go for and revelling in the discomfort of the jihadists, whom they felt had ridden roughshod over their war in recent months. “I don’t care if the Americans attack them too,” said one of the men, whose unit has been joined by the jihadists in several battles.
Part of the tension is that the jihadists–primarily the al Qaeda linked al-Nusra fighters– feel that the Free Syria Army troops hold them back, as this article from Al Jazeera explains:
Men like Omar, a Syrian member of Jabhat al-Nusra from Latakia, view the FSA as an obstacle. “We wanted to work. They wouldn’t let us,” he said. “I can’t go to battle and have the Free Army telling the regime my plans.”
When people like Secretary of State Kerry or Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) call the FSA “moderate”, this is one of their excuses. The factions really don’t like each other.
On the other hand, the Free Syria Army and al-Nusra keep fighting together. The latest example was the FSA fighting alongside the jihadists this past week to overtake the Christian town of Maaloula, about an hour north of Syria. It’s happened in battle after battle; the Free Syria Army and al-Nusra troops are joined together.
To understand this dynamic, let’s look to Tarantino’s classic indie crime film. Spoilers ahead.
In case you’re one of the few people on earth with hasn’t seen it, Reservoir Dogs is about the tensions between a gang of criminals after a heist goes horribly wrong. In one of the most memorable scenes from the film, Mr. White (played by Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Blonde (played by Michael Madsen) nearly kill each other after Mr. White goes on a rant about what a homicidal maniac Mr. Blonde is.
(Warning for language and Tarantino’s now famous fetish for the N-word.)
In this analogy, Mr. White is the Free Syria Army and Mr. Blonde is the al-Nasur jihadists. As you can see, they fight. Mr. White has a big problem with Mr. Blonde, the homicidal maniac who has absolutely no boundaries, including gratuitously shooting people at the heist .
Would you call Mr. White ‘moderate?’ Only by comparison and only if you were willing to ignore every other person in the world not as sociopathic as Mr. Blonde.
In reality, Mr. White is a thug–he’s a robber, murderer and career criminal himself. He’s a very bad guy, who at one point in the film calmly explains how to cut off someone’s thumb to get them to comply. It’s only when contrasted with Mr. Blonde that he appears anything close to “moderate.”
The problem in Syria is that the coalition of rebels has a lot more Mr. Blondes then Mr. Whites. To get a sense of the laundry list of evil that makes up the jihadists, look no further than this Al Jazeera article describes a battle that was:
…spearheaded by a hardcore Islamist coalition made up of the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, its fiercer partner the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, Suqoor el Ezz, Ahrar al-Sham and Katibat il Muhajiroon (a battalion made up solely of foreign fighters from Chechnya, Libya, Tunisia, Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world as well as a number of European countries, including Belgium, France, Austria and Germany, according to other rebels.)
These are the mujahedin and as you can see, they have streamed into Syria from all around the world. They are bloodthirsty. They are the ones doing the suicide bombings, the beheadings and the other atrocities you hear about. And the FSA-just like in Mr. White’s rant about Mr. Blonde-are shocked, I say shocked by it.
The FSA hates the brutality, they say. Yet there they are in the same gang, fighting right along side the jihadists, time and time again.
At the end of the confrontation between Mr. White and Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, the gang members make up and then all go out to look at what Mr. Blonde has in the trunk of his car. It’s a police office that Mr. Blonde has taken hostage and will later torture just for fun.
When the trunk of the car opens and Mr. White sees the bound, helpless cop … he doesn’t quit the gang. He doesn’t protest. He smiles and laughs right along with Mr. Blonde.
Remember that laugh next time Kerry or McCain call any of the rebel factions “moderate” as a pretext to justify President Obama’s intervention in Syria.