How to Make Syria Much, Much Worse

James Harkin argues at Foreign Policy that the internationalization of the conflict in Syria has exacerbated the civil strife there. Part of the problem lies with the Syrian National Council – the exile group allying itself with the opposition fighters – and their “orchestrated effort to turn Homs into a Syrian Benghazi — the eastern Libyan city whose imminent destruction by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces provided the catalyst that sparked the international intervention in Libya last year.”

Harkin has been in and out of Syria for years and was last there in February and from his own experiences and direct sources inside Homs, he explains how many of those stories were simply fabricated. With an eye toward the Libya example, “the exiled Syrian opposition seems to have aimed to exaggerate the civilian losses in the city into the claim of genocide in order to push buttons within the international community.” And the media, he argues, largely cooperated.

With regards to the international response, Harkin sees outside support for the opposition fighters to be counterproductive at best:

The SNC’s apparent decision to accept money from the Gulf States to pay salaries to Free Syrian Army guerrillas sounded breathtakingly arrogant, and makes for shockingly bad politics. Not only does lend credence to the conspiracy theories peddled by the government that the uprising is the handiwork of foreign agitators; it risks splitting the indigenous opposition movement and empowering exactly the kind of Sunni extremist groups who are most likely to stoke sectarian tensions.

This criticism of intervention by the Gulf States holds for the West as well, as I’ve argued many times. While countries like the U.S. and Britain claim to be supplying the Syrian opposition fighters with non-lethal aid, empowering the more militant religious extremists over the reform-minded political activists is still likely. As Marc Lynch has argued, if foreigners arm the rebels “fighting groups will rise in political power, while those who have advocated nonviolence or who advance political strategies will be marginalized.” Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations also explained recently that “there are Saudi Salafis, as well as al-Qaeda elements, and others who are included toward more extreme versions of religiosity present in that conflict. Given that we don’t really know who the Syrian opposition is composed of in detail, how wise is it to then bring down another regime and put in its place yet another Muslim Brotherhood-led government?” Lynch has also argued previously that outside intervention would vindicate the Assad regime’s accusations and “would only invite escalations from Syrian regime forces.”

Harkin ends with a hard-hitting quip:

Who knows: If the unthinking drift toward creating neo-mujahideen in Syria and Iran (a strategyadvocated by Foreign Policy’s own James Traub) continues, following a decade in which radical Sunnis became America’s Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden might have to be posthumously converted back into the freedom fighter America saw him as in the 1980s, marching into battle to drive out one of the last vestiges of godlessness in the Middle East.

I argued the same back in February when the first reports of possible al-Qaeda fighters in Syria came forth. Unfortunately, to say that the leadership in the U.S. is explicitly advocating merging U.S. policy with al-Qaeda’s tactical plans is not enough to stop interventionists in their tracks.