Amal Saad: What Obama means by “moderate rebels”

By Amal Saad

I’ve always held a particular fascination for the stomach-churning US foreign policy concept of “moderation”. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of equivocal and ironic expressions like when my son was 5 and professed to hate someone “a little”, or when one is praised for being “rather brilliant” or when a man tells a woman he is “a little bit” in love with her.

But when it comes to the US’ foreign policy-mainstream media-think tank complex’s promotion of “moderate” rebels in Syria, I have far less tolerance for such equivocations. In the not too distant past, the Bush administration used the term “arc of moderation” to label the US’ Sunni Arab allies in the region which was pitted against the “arc of extremism”, aka, the “Resistance axis”.

Then as now, moderation basically meant being moderate on Israel and imperialism, rather than any secular liberal ideals related to democracy, women’s rights, the treatment of minorities and openness to other religions. And even when US policy wonks called for engagement with “moderate Islamists” like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, this had far less to do with their participation in democratic elections and inherent liberalism than their “nonviolence” vis-à-vis the West and of course, Israel, which explains why a progressive movement like Hizbullah has consistently been labeled “terrorist” and “extremist”.

In the Syrian context, when Obama talks about arming “moderate rebels” to confront ISIS, he isn’t referring to non-takfiri groups whose sectarianism is less doctrinal than it is socio-political, or which have been making local cease-fire deals with the Syrian government in a number of regions and are hence capable of engaging in dialogue with Syrian government to end the war. We can be certain that this isn’t the case when the only significant fighting forces worth backing are Jihadi groups, when Wahhabi Saudi Arabia is enlisted in the war on Wahhabi ISIS, and when the media has unabashedly been trying to promote Jabhit al-Nusra /al-Qaeda as more moderate than ISIS (only yesterday for example corporate media was awash with reports about how JaN pleaded with ISIS to spare Alan Henning’s life).

When the US refers to “moderate rebels” it doesn’t even allude to oxymorons like moderately genocidal groups who execute in moderate numbers, are only moderately ideologically sectarian, and pursue a transnational Caliphate in moderation, but rather, groups which the US hopes are more co-optable and cooperative with its grander strategic aims than ISIS has proven to be.

The bottom line is this: unless you’re a cute 5 year old who hasn’t quite mastered the love-hate dichotomy, or a teacher who likes to make her intellectual praise more credible by subtly qualifying it, or a goofy but charming guy who disarms women with understatements, you’re neither adorable nor endearing when you make gross understatements, least of all about takfiri-jihadis who pose an existential threat to everyone in the region.

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Amal Saad on ISIS and Obama’s Address to the Nation