Syrian opposition envoy Najib Ghadbian: Why US military support undermines al Qaeda and supports a democratic Syria

The recent decision by the Obama administration to arm vetted Syrian opposition fighters has won strong bipartisan support from members of the U.S. Congress and the American public. But it has also been met with skepticism from sectors of the U.S. policymaking community, who worry that U.S. arms will get into the wrong hands. Although such concerns are understandable, this policy change is a necessary step toward supporting the moderate, pro-democracy forces in Syria, which will isolate and weaken both the despotic Assad regime on one side and extremists groups on the other side.

Working together with the Syrian Coalition, the Free Syrian Army and its leadership, the Supreme Joint Military Command, Syria’s united opposition has taken a series of robust measures to ensure a clear chain of custody of U.S. weapons. Our united coalition is working not simply to ensure that U.S. arms don’t end up in extremists’ hands, but also that American assistance strengthens Syria’s moderate voices and undermines the foundation upon which extremist factions build their support.  

Our coalition is broadly representative and committed to a civil, democratic Syria. We have a realistic plan to ensure control of U.S.-provided weapons while also continuing efforts to ensure that opposition forces will merge to become a national army under civilian authority once Syria is fully liberated.

We have already put safeguards in place. The Supreme Joint Military Command regularly conducts unannounced, surprise inspections of frontline units to ensure that there are no children or non-Syrian fighters, that prisoners are treated humanely according to the Geneva Conventions, and that all weapons are accounted for and inventoried. We also verify that all soldiers fighting under our command are duly registered, and that these lists are crosschecked to make sure no known criminals have infiltrated our ranks. The Syrian Coalition has distributed guidelines on international humanitarian law, and we hold training sessions for fighters to ensure that they understand and comply with these guidelines. 

Much has been made of the radicals who commit atrocities on the battlefield in the name of our revolution. Make no mistake: there is no place for these criminals in a free Syria. 

They are not the face or the spirit of the millions of Syrians who abhor terrorism and support the revolution as the last remaining hope to achieving freedom and dignity. The words and deeds of these fanatical few are just as destructive in our eyes as those of the murderous regime we seek to replace.

These extremists, some linked to al Qaeda, seek to exploit the chaos in parts of Syria. However, our country has always been a mosaic of people, faiths and ideas, and this is the wellspring of our democratic aspirations. The appeal of extremism to angry, disenfranchised youth can only be offset by more compelling efforts to engage these young people in building our country anew. A country that celebrates diversity and creates opportunities to grow and develop is the best antidote to extremism.

Indeed, publicly repudiating groups like the Al-Nusra Front, as we have done, is not enough. That is why we are already thinking about how to rebuild our basic infrastructure — whether fixing roads, restoring electricity or rebuilding schools — and how to reignite our economy once the regime falls. We are already restoring basic services in areas under opposition control and are positioned to turn over these essential tasks to a transitional civilian government across the rest of the country once the Assad regime steps down. Securing arms is only a part of our broad transition plan to restore the peaceful environment necessary to hold free and fair multi-party elections.

In addition to giving all Syrians a stake in a peaceful future, we also plan to counter extremism by better equipping and training our own fighters. Extremists use battlefield success to recruit people to their cause. So must we. We thank the American people for providing the Syrian people with direct military support. This will help give moderate fighters the edge both to challenge the regime and counter extremists. And if the U.S. also provides or permits the provision of capabilities to protect against the regime’s air forces, the conflict can end even sooner.

The Syrian people appreciate the resources America has already committed in support of our struggle for freedom and democracy. Like Americans, we are resolute in our conviction that one tyranny should not and cannot be replaced by another. With America’s support of our mainstream opposition movement, al Qaeda and its kind will have no future in Syria. 

Ghadbian is the special representative to the United States for the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. Ghadbian is a Syrian pro-democracy activist and academic. He is associate professor of Political Science and Middle East Studies at the University of Arkansas, a signatory to the Damascus Declaration (2005) and was a founding member of the Syrian National Council.