Syrian Rebels Aren't Able To Fill Government's Role As They Take Cities

Audie Cornish talks to Elizabeth O'Bagy from the Institute for the Study of War about her recent visit to rebel groups in Syria and the political and military landscape of the opposition in Syria.

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The U.S. and other countries have hesitated to help arm the rebel groups in Syria, mainly arguing that they don't want those weapons falling into the wrong hands. After nearly two years of fighting in Syria, the number of rebel groups has spiraled into the hundreds. Now, France and Britain are calling for an emergency European Union meeting to end the arms embargo from allied nations to Syria's rebel groups.

To get a picture of who the rebel groups are and why Western countries are reconsidering their position, we turn to Elizabeth O'Bagy. She's from the Institute for the Study of War and was in Syria last month meeting with members of various rebel groups.

Welcome to the program.

ELIZABETH O'BAGY: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So you were actually just in Syria. What are you hearing from rebel groups? Can you give an example of kind of what their concerns are versus what the international community's concerns are?

O'BAGY: First, the fact that they need more weapons, that they need the capability to defeat the regime which is right now militarily superior to the rebel forces. The other main concern is actually governance and this idea that as they advance on urban centers, the rebels are not able to really fill that government role in terms of providing basic services, providing food, water, oil, making sure that electricity is still running. These things that are very basic to us, yeah, are causing significant problems in rebel-held communities.

CORNISH: So you've actually been tracking these various rebel groups in Syria. What are the trends or categories of groups?

O'BAGY: There are two main trends among the armed opposition. You have very small local localized battalions. And these are mostly composed of men that have picked up arms to defend their communities. They stay within a very local level, and they are really just defensive, organized.

Then you have larger independent brigades. And these are the brigades that are well-known names, like the Farouq Battalion in the Homs area or the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo. And these groups tend to have clear hierarchies and chains of command. And they operate across the country and participate in offensive operations against the regime.

CORNISH: Now, there's one other faction or group that people have raised concerns about. And that is the growing influence of foreign fighters and/or jihadists that are also making an appearance in Syria. Can you give us a better picture of what's going on there?

O'BAGY: Unfortunately, jihadist groups have been the most powerful in Syria so far. And this is because they've had well-developed logistic networks that have been really in action for decades, unlike the armed opposition which is a relatively new phenomenon. And because of this, they have been very capable and more effective than the more moderate Free Syrian Army-associated brigades. And this has allowed extremist groups, with their own networks and their own structures, to really take a leading role in the fight against Assad.

CORNISH: So how do these various rebel groups interact with each other given this wide spectrum?

O'BAGY: You're beginning to see schisms emerge between those extremist groups and the more moderate groups, specifically in terms of where they see Syria going and the idea that most of the opposition is fighting for their right to participate in some form of democratic political processes. And groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the more extremist groups are basically saying that that will not be a right in a future Syria.

CORNISH: Elizabeth O'Bagy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

O'BAGY: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

CORNISH: Elizabeth O'Bagy is an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

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