They were “aware” of the visit, as you’ll see below, but being “aware” and approving of it are two different things. I’ll give Maverick the benefit of the doubt and assume that he wouldn’t have taken a little propaganda trip against the White House’s wishes, no matter how pro-rebel (or rather, pro-interventionist) he is, at a moment when O’s sweating out a decision on whether to do more in Syria. The fact remains, though, whether Obama-approved or not, his trip was propaganda. Via Roll Call, here’s a glimpse from a recent Dexter Filkins piece in the New Yorker of the rebels who are doing most of the fighting while McCain was being glad-handed yesterday:
In recent months, with urging from the U.S. and its allies, a large number of the estimated seventy thousand rebel fighters have been brought together under a joint military command, a coalition of thirty armed groups, which American officials imagine as a nascent national army. The joint command, based just inside Turkey, is led by General Salim Idris, a high-ranking defector from Assad’s regime. Proponents of greater aid for the rebels have suggested that arms and money be sent through Idris, to solidify his command. A senior American official who works on Syria policy said that approximately half of the money now flowing to the rebels goes through the joint command, and that Idris has begun to coördinate operations. “This is a war of attrition, and the government is losing,’’ the official said. “It doesn’t mean it is going to collapse tomorrow, but the trend lines are negative.”
Obama has made clear, however, that he has little confidence in the rebels, arguing that they are ideologically fractured, that the rebellion lacks a coherent structure, and that individual groups would be impossible to control and would probably fight each other. Some of the guns, he believes, could ultimately make their way to Islamist groups. Idris has pointedly excluded some extremists from the coalition, including Al Nusra and another collection of hard-line Islamist groups, the Syrian Islamic Front. (Al Nusra, for its part, never asked to join up.) But, according to American officials and nongovernmental groups that work in the region, the overwhelming majority of the rebels are fighting for an Islamic republic. Al Nusra, like the other Al Qaeda affiliates, wants to do away with the Syrian state altogether and reëstablish the Islamic caliphate. “The Islamists are the majority,’’ Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst for the Institute for the Study of War who has travelled to rebel-held areas several times, said. The small number of non-Islamists among the rebels are often socialists, she told me, and are referred to by their peers with an English word: “hippies.”
There is a cold-blooded argument to be made for arming the rebels, now more than ever and despite their Islamist tendencies: Hezbollah’s going all-in on Syria, and the more well-armed Sunni nuts there are to greet them there, the better the chances are of a massive jihadi bloodletting on both sides. There may not be much time left either, as Assad’s forces — with Hezbollah’s help — have reportedly turned the tide in key areas that are vital to their supply routes. The better they do this month, the more leverage they’ll have at the big “peace” conference next month. McCain could, if he chose, press the point that if our enemies are willing to kill each other, we should do what we can to make sure the fight goes on for as long as possible, but the effect of yesterday’s photo op is the opposite. He wants Americans to believe that there’s some significant element of Syrian rebels who are budding U.S. allies and that they’re sufficiently formidable and well organized to be able to host a U.S. senator inside Syria. (In fact, McCain’s visit was held just on the other side of the border with Turkey.) Less than a month ago, the Guardian reported that members of the moderate-ish Free Syrian Army were becoming radicalized and defecting en masse to jihadist rebel factions like Jabhat al-Nusra. A few days before that, the New York Times reported, “Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.” That’s the reality belied by McCain’s stunt, presumably undertaken with the White House’s blessing, to mislead the public into thinking there just might be an American friend in the making somewhere inside the maelstrom.