The recent execution of Catholic priest Francois Murad at the hands of Islamist Al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria only reinforces the biggest question in the debate about arming Syrian rebels: Can Bashar Al-Assad fall without empowering radicals? Whether we like it or not, the actions of the radicals show that they're already empowered enough to further complicate the situation in Syria. The execution of Murad emphasizes the concerns of the Obama administration, meaning that there’s a lot we don’t know about who is fighting in the struggle to topple the Assad regime.
The priest, identified as Francois Murad by the news site Catholic Online and the Vatican, was one of three men to be publicly executed by the Jabbat al-Nusra rebels on film. The al-Nusra rebels have already gained attention for aggressive and increasingly effective tactics against Assad forces. The grisly scene involved beheadings by what appeared to be a kitchen knife as a crowd of onlookers cheered on with choruses of “Allahu Akbar.” (Allah is the greatest.)
Murad had begun to build a monastery in the northern town of Gassanieh, Idlib in Syria. The monastery had been dedicated to the ascetic Saint Simeon Stylites, who had lived and worked in Syria. Murad was kidnapped from the monastery and executed shortly after with the two other identified men in the town.
The execution continues to strain Christian and Islamic relations in the region and abroad, just one aspect of the multiple dimensions involved in the Syrian Civil War. Politically, the increasing inclusion of Al-Qaeda linked rebels in the fight against the Assad regime is problematic.
In a June 17 interview with Charlie Rose, President Obama succinctly summed up the biggest problem in arming the Syrian rebels, “And one of the challenges that we have is that some of the most effective fighters within the opposition have been those who frankly are not particularly [friendly] towards the United States of America, and arming them willy-nilly is not a good recipe for meeting American interests over the long term.” For the American public, it’s getting easier to imagine the confusion that goes on in the Situation Room of the White House on a daily basis.
This has always been our dilemma though: Who exactly are we dealing with, and are they prominent in the resistance? There’s no proof to say that Jabbat al-Nustra isn’t collaborating with the majority of the Free Syrian Army. If so, is it merely tactical in terms of bringing down Assad’s forces, or is there brokering for more influence in the future? Given the nature of the recent executions, a post-Assad Syria isn’t necessarily a democratic and peaceful Syria.
If Assad falls, there is bound to be a power vacuum. Wishful thinking says the Free Syrian Army will fill it, but the ever-growing role of radical Al-Qaeda groups is not one to be ignored. If the Obama administration supports the rebels, there may be a chance that groups of an anti-U.S. mindset might be directly benefiting from the U.S.
Despite the narrative of fighting the good fight against Assad, there is clearly a dark side to this revolution. The Obama administration has two problems on its hands. First, is admitting that we don’t know what’s really happening on the ground, and second, gambling on what action to take within this fog of revolution.