Assad, Russia Warn West Against Backing Islamist Rebels

Syria’s president and his Russian ally point to Muslim extremists among the opposition.

William Hague and Sergei Lavrov, the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom and Russia, deliver a joint press conference in London, England, February 15, 2011
William Hague and Sergei Lavrov, the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom and Russia, deliver a joint press conference in London, England, February 15, 2011 (FCO)

Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad and his ally Russia both warned Western powers on Wednesday against supporting Islamist rebels in the country.

In an interview with Syrian television, Assad insisted that his regime is fighting extremists and reminded European countries and the United States, which support the opposition against his secular dictatorship, that they “paid heavily for funding Al Qaeda in its early stages in Afghanistan. Today it is supporting it in Syria, Libya and other places,” he claimed, according to extracts published on the Syrian presidency’s Facebook page.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose country is loosely allied to Syria, similarly told RT television in September of last year, “Today, some want to use militants from Al Qaeda or some other organizations with equally radical views to achieve their goals in Syria.” Like Assad, the Russian leader compared the situation to the United States backing mujahideen rebels during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and warned that propping up Muslim extremists in Syria will similarly backfire.

Putin’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov added on Wednesday that Western efforts to isolate Assad’s regime might wreck the chances of a peaceful resolution to the conflict and help radical Islamists.

“One must understand that the more one bets on the isolation of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and a military solution, the more these threats will be felt,” Lavrov told a press conference after meeting with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoğlu in Istanbul.

Turkey, a rising Sunni Muslim power in the region, also supports Syria’s rebels despite improving commercial and diplomatic relations with the country before its uprising began more than two years ago.

Initially peaceful protests turned into revolt after Assad’s security forces tried to suppress dissent from mainly Syrian Sunnis, the largest sectarian group in the country. Minorities, including Christians, largely support Assad’s Alawite administration, if for fear of prosecution under an Islamist government.

The most potent elements in the armed opposition movement appear to be the more radical groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra which last week formally pledged its allegiance to Al Qaeda, the organization that carried out the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.

Western powers have been reluctant to provide more than “nonlethal” aid to rebel fighters for fear of propping up a jihadist insurgency although The New York Times reported in October that most of the communications equipment and weapons supplied by the United States and its allies in the region, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, did end up in the hands of religious extremists.

The European Union prohibits weapons sales into Syria but France and the United Kingdom are increasingly critical of the embargo as the civil war in Syria seems at an impasse. Britain announced last month that it would provide millions of pounds worth of nonlethal civilian and military assistance, exempt from the embargo, including body armor and sanitation systems.