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What's the Difference? If These Guys Are 'Moderates' Then so Is al-Qaeda

How is a 'moderate rebel' different from a 'violent jihadist extremist' if both target Syrian civilians and security forces in the very same offensives?

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Much of the discussion that preceded the recent agreement on a Syrian ceasefire revolved around which opposition armed groups could be considered 'moderate', and therefore not a fair target for Syrian or Russian airstrikes.

The US and its allies clearly could have no argument over the 'immoderacy' of Da'esh, as it had been the pretext for their own illegal intervention in Syria, and the target of some coalition airstrikes. Next in the immoderate stakes was Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, whose record of terrorist atrocities in Syria should have also made it beyond dispute as a fair target for the proposed joint US-Russian military action.

Purportedly however, the months of delay in securing a ceasefire agreement was because of such a dispute. Jabhat al Nusra had long been the principal threat to, and target for the Syrian army and its allies, whether alone or in coalition with other groups. The most destructive and lethal expansion of opposition control occurred in 2015, following the formation of one such coalition - 'Jaish al Fatah' - the Army of Conquest, as a joint project by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

While the military support for Al Nusra by these two partners in the US coalition was blatant and shameless, the de-facto support of the US for the Al Qaeda-led army was evident from the new weaponry in its hands - US-made TOW anti-tank missiles. Claims that these weapons had somehow fallen into the wrong hands rung a bit hollow, given that Syrian army tanks were the only possible target. The US said at the time that the 'moderate rebels' it was training and arming were to drive back Da'esh/Islamic State, against whom such weapons wouldn't have been much use.

In one last desperate attempt to keep Al Nusra off the Russian target list, it was re-badged to 'Jabhat Fatah al Sham' - by its sponsors presumably - and renounced its allegiance to Al Qaeda. But not even the Americans believed this ruse, and so finally had to agree to Russia's conditions.

The history of US duplicity over Jabhat al Nusra goes back to the early days of the war on Syria, when there was disagreement in the US congress over classifying it as a terrorist group. Republicans recognised it as a key instrument in the proxy war for regime change while armed opposition groups and their supporters in Syria declared 'we are all Al Nusra' when it was threatened with proscription by the UN. For most Syrians of course, this was a revelation that they could never forget - that there was little difference between the groups of violent militants and mercenaries who were making their lives hell, regardless of what they called themselves.

While Western leaders and media make a fool of President Assad for calling all opposition militants 'terrorists' they also make fools of all the Syrians and soldiers being killed by the 'takfiri' army. For the young girl paralysed by a sniper's bullet in her spine, or the old man blinded by shrapnel from an exploding gas-bottle bomb, the exact classification of their persecutor is irrelevant, and Western media only make fools of themselves by pretending otherwise.

In reality, the whole thrust of the West's campaign against the Syrian state depends on the construct of the 'moderate rebel' and the 'Free Syrian Army' - whose struggle against the Assad government can be sold to the masses as a fight against tyranny and injustice that they must support, even though the fighting is in someone else's country.

Although some commentators have noticed that the Free Syrian Army barely exists any longer (notwithstanding a recent resurrection by the Turkish army), and that other relatively moderate armed groups are hard to find, even these sceptices don't recognise the truth - that there is no such thing as a 'moderate rebel', and in fact the expression itself is disingenuous. Since when was a man with a loaded gun or RPG launcher 'moderate' in his killing, even if he was once a dentist or a plumber? How would we describe a man who shoots at our police or security forces, not in self-defence but with criminal intent? Is he more moderate than a man who launches a home-made bomb in their general direction, or more moderate than a man who kills and dismembers another who refuses to join his group?

So much for moderate, but what about 'rebel' - a word which seems designed to conjure up a family-friendly image, and which in our Western societies one associates with disaffected teenagers, or student protestors. But significantly, such young 'rebels' who go beyond being moderate, for instance by throwing Molatov cocktails, are immediately labelled 'militant'. And even militancy has its limits - anyone who gets a weapon and starts killing people is now simply 'a terrorist'. Such a person not only risks summary execution, but is also denied any leniency on account of legitimate grievances. Not only do we consider that nothing can excuse such lethal acts - or even the intent to commit them, but we have removed the whole idea of 'legitimate grievances' from the vocabulary.

Is it not beyond hypocrisy then, to describe any members of this army of violent and ruthless mercenaries and criminals that the 'Western coalition' is using in its war of aggression in Syria as 'moderate rebels', and ascribe to them such grievances as to legitimise their barbaric killing of so many innocent Syrians, including an estimated 100,000 Syrian security forces?

Should we not then also join in with the catch-cry of the insurgents, as they stuff a new batch of gas bottles with explosives, or sharpen their penknives for the next decapitation - "We are all Moderate Rebels now"?

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