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August 18, 2013 1:27 PM Two years on, Washington’s “Syrian freedom fighters” must face the facts

By Samuel Knight

With the world focused on Egypt, an important milestone in Middle Eastern relations is passing with little fanfare. Two years ago today, President Obama openly called for Bashar al-Assad’s ouster for the first time.

While the policy may play well on cable talk shows, where American officials and former officials can wax moralistic and strut about masquerading as the eternal foe of oppression, the move has fueled violence and extremism in Syria. A report cited by McClatchy in June showed that almost half the dead in the conflict backed forces loyal to the government - figures that “cast doubt on the widely repeated assertion that the government of President Bashar Assad is responsible for an overwhelming majority of the deaths there.” The rebels haven’t covered themselves in glory in civil affairs, either - two recent high profile incidents in Aleppo saw rebels executing a 15 year old for blasphemy, and issuing a fatwa banning croissants. Claims that our support is directed away from the Jihad minded toward more secular-minded forces are laughable and childish - made clear not only by power dynamics and the fog of war, but by John McCain’s decision to pose for a picture inside Syria with anti-Assad terrorists.

Yet the discourse has been typically immature, with the mainstream deluding itself into thinking the situation is a simple one - Assad vs. Freedom. An August 2012 CNN report on Saudi aid to the rebels — the plurality of money flowing to the insurgents — highlighted this mindset, laughably describing money being “tightly controlled by the Saudi Interior Ministry” as preventing “extremist groups like al Qaeda from benefiting from Saudi largesse.” Because when has the Saudi government ever supported terrorism before?

But none of this seems to disturb officials in Washington. As I reported in March, they’re so determined to fall over each other to appear most opposed to Assad that they largely ignored respected Syrian expatriates who visited DC to lobby the Obama administration to encourage an immediate cease fire and a negotiated settlement to the strife. While Assad’s claims that he was fighting terrorists were absurd at first, they said, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy - one that is leading to a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis.

Which brings us to today’s news: Reports are coming in that tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees are streaming over the border, fleeing Syria for safety in Iraq.

From the BBC:

Up to 10,000 crossed at Peshkhabour on Saturday, adding to an earlier influx of 7,000 on Thursday. The UN says the reasons are not fully clear.
The UN agencies, the Kurdish regional government and NGOs are struggling to cope, correspondents say.

The reason, according to an AFP report, is pretty straight forward:

Government forces pulled out of most Kurdish-majority areas of northern and northeastern Syria last year, leaving Kurdish groups to run their own affairs.
But Al-Qaeda loyalists, who have played a significant role in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, see the region as a vital link to fellow jihadists in Iraq and have been locked in deadly fighting with Kurdish militia in recent months.

Along with other violence in Iraq caused by the Syrian Civil War, this is a pretty decent reason to change tack, lest the region descend into an even deeper inferno. Two years of preening about freedom and democracy while the facts on the ground state otherwise is more than enough.

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.

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