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What Makes A 'Moderate' Syrian Rebel Moderate?

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns a plan to arm Syria's moderate rebels could put weapons into the hands of extremists.
Posted at 10:44 AM, Sep 17, 2014

The success of President Obama’s plan to combat ISIS in Syria relies on the country’s so-called moderate rebels. It’s a term that gets tossed around a lot, but who exactly are those rebels and what makes them moderate?

There’s no good way to classify the 1,000 or so armed opposition groups fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. On one end, there's the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, and on the other jihadist groups like the Al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and ISIS itself. (Via YouTube / WarClashes

On Wednesday, the U.S. House is expected to vote on whether to approve Obama’s $500 million package to arm and train some 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels. Although there's no formal definition of moderate, the groups the administration has in mind tend not to be as ideological as their hardline Islamist counterparts. (Video via CBS

But vetting these groups to determine who meets that criteria is a major challenge. 

As Syria analyst Aron Lund put it to The New York Times: “You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights and that is waiting and ready because they don’t exist.”

The problem is many of these so-called moderate groups fighting to topple Assad have become disillusioned after three-and-a-half years of fighting. They’ve disbanded, radicalized and joined up with Syria’s more extreme elements. (Video via YouTube / ولاية الرقة)

Experts have even questioned whether the Free Syrian Army — the group the U.S. has put the most faith in —  can be counted on. The group’s been plagued with defections, corruption and infighting. (Video via PBS

Given these divisions, a professor of security policy at Columbia University told The Huffington Post this is the worst possible time to provide the rebels with heavy weaponry. “This would be a golden opportunity for the Islamic State to concentrate attacks on them in order to seize the weapons.”

That’s a concern echoed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who questioned what’s to stop U.S. weapons from falling into the hands of Syria’s more extreme rebels, including ISIS. (Video via YouTube /Foukoul Hani Rif)

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND VIA C-SPAN: “How can we have any hope that if they do agree to fight ISIL on some level, not just Assad, that they will continue to do so and not align themselves with ISIL."

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN VIA MSNBC: “You don't think the Free Syrian Army is going to fight against Bashar [al-] Assad, who has been decimating them?... You think these people you're training will only go back to fight against [IS]?” 

Critics say there’s a lesson to be learned in what happened when the CIA sent covert aid to so-called Afghan freedom fighters in the 1980s. Known as the mujahideen, those fighters gave rise to the Taliban years later. (Video via ITN

A more recent example is what we saw when ISIS overran Mosul back in June. The Iraqi soldiers fled and the militants scooped up their American-provided weapons. (Video via YouTube /  ولاية البركة

For its part, the administration says it will work with the intelligence community to closely monitor the rebels and make sure any aid doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. 

This video includes images from Train2014, أبو بكر السوري and Illegitimate Barrister