Syria rebels strike heavy blow against Assad

Rebels in Syria are losing ground but gaining strength, as proved by two major attacks in the last week. Is this good news? And what happens if the West and al Qaeda are on the same side?

Nobody thought Bashar al Assad would hold onto power so long. It is now 14 months since the first protests against Syria’s dictator. In that time, he has faced mass demonstrations, international sanctions and finally a full-scale armed uprising. He has survived it all.

How? In the old fashioned manner of autocrats everywhere: through the unrestrained use of military force. Assad has shown no hesitation in sending tanks and artillery to root out any signs of opposition – even when that means bombing his own people, and pounding his own cities into dust.

Lightly armed rebel fighters have so far been almost powerless to resist. But yesterday morning, surprising news filtered out of Syria: Assad’s soldiers, attacking the city of Rastan, had suffered a small but significant defeat. Activists claim 23 were killed, and three armoured transports destroyed.

The reports suggest that rebels have dramatically upgraded their firepower. There are only two obvious ways they could have taken out the armoured vehicles: heavy weapons and powerful explosive booby traps known as IEDs.

Where could these have come from? Heavy weapons could well have been supplied by rich Western allies like Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

Making powerful booby traps, on the other hand, is a matter of knowhow rather than money. And, for Syrian rebels, the world’s top experts in making these IEDs are right next door: in Iraq, where insurgents spent nearly a decade practising their bomb-making skills on Western occupying forces.

Indeed, some veterans of that conflict are known to be fighting in Syria already. On Thursday last week, a group called the al Nusra Front carried out a devastating bomb attack in the Syrian capital. The methods were textbook Iraq. The flag displayed in the background to the group’s video messages? Suspiciously close to the black flag of al Qaeda.

The extraordinary truth is: a simmering conflict between two Muslim sects may have put al Qaeda and the West on the same side. Key Western allies in the Middle East belong to the Sunni religious school. Key opponents (like Syria and Iran) have Shia regimes.

And many in the Sunni al Qaeda organisation appear to hate Shia Muslims even more than they hate the West.

My enemy’s enemy

Realists say: bad news for Assad is good news for the world. If Assad falls, his allies in Iran will be weakened. Iran, which is close to developing a nuclear weapon, is a major threat to world peace.

But if terrorists are helping the Syrian opposition, it is reasonable to worry that Syria after Assad might be even more violent and bloody than it is today. That would be a tragedy for the Syrian people, who have already suffered so much.

You Decide

  1. Should the Syrian opposition accept help from terrorists?
  2. Should Western governments worry more about the rights of the Syrian people or their own national interest?


  1. Hold a class debate on the following motion: ‘This house believes that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’
  2. Like most other religions, Islam has many different sects and traditions. In groups, research any world religion (a different one for each group) and create a table showing the main branches, with a brief explanation of the differences.

Some People Say...

“Any faction al Qaeda supports, the world should be against.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is the West involved in something that’s happening so far away?
Different people give different explanations, all of which may have some element of truth. First: Western governments genuinely do care about the human rights and suffering of people in Syria, and so they want Assad to step down. Second: the West wants to hurt Iran, by deposing its only ally in the region. Third: the West wants to dominate the Middle East in order to secure the rich oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
What is so important about Iran?
Iran is thought to be close to developing a nuclear missile. That would allow it to launch a nuclear attack on Israel (a major Western ally) or Saudi Arabia. It could start a nuclear arms race in the region.

Word Watch

Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, are the primary weapon in insurgent warfare as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. They can be made from old artillery shells, or even agricultural fertiliser, but laying IEDs successfully requires a good deal of skill and experience. IEDs allow poorly armed and ill equipped fighters to inflict casualties on vastly superior forces, but they are also indiscriminate weapons that have caused thousands of civilian deaths.
Textbook Iraq
The Damascus attacks followed the classic Iraqi pattern. One small blast causes a few casualties and attracts security officers, ambulances and curious crowds. A second, much larger bomb then explodes in the same place, causing devastation.
Sunnis (around 80% of all Muslims) follow the Sunnah: the sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammed. Extreme Sunnis (called Salafis) follow a very strict and old-fashioned version of Islam. Al Qaeda recruits are often drawn from Salafi communities.
Shia Muslims believe in the holiness of Mohammed’s successors, the imams. There are Shia majorities in Iran and Iraq. Syria is majority-Sunni but is ruled by members of the Shia Alawite sect.
Hate Shia Muslims
Even during the Iraq War, the main victims of al Qaeda attacks were not Western soldiers but Shia Iraqis.
If terrorists are helping
The head of al Qaeda has encouraged militants to join the struggle against Assad. The main Syrian opposition groups have, however, tried hard to distance themselves from al Qaeda. Some even speculate that the al Nusra front may have been set up by Assad himself, in an effort to justify his campaign of repression.

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