Matthew Schrier was working as a freelance photographer when he was captured by Al-Qaeda-linked rebels last December. He was beaten and given electric shocks by the rebels, who also emptied his bank accounts and pretended to be by writing emails to his family. He eventually escaped in July through a gap in a basement window.
As the West prepares to respond to accusations of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, the question arises as to who it will really be helping. The groups that stand to gain the most from any anti-Assad action are those that have already been doing well on the ground, such as Islamic extremist and groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The west must ensure their aid does not land in the wrong hands.
Schrier was held by Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most well-armed groups among the Syrian opposition that openly declares its allegiance to Al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Other extremist groups with radical Islamic ideologies such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, formerly called Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) have taken root in Syria and are quickly gaining ground.
Schrier’s capture highlights the success of such groups. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, for example, with its radical ideology and use of tactics like as kidnapping and beheading, has stamped its identity on the communities including those surrounding the main border crossings with Turkey. These groups have managed to establish a number of no-go areas in the northern and northeastern parts of the country. Civilian activists, rival rebel commanders and westerners, including more than a dozen journalists and relief workers, have been assassinated or abducted in recent months where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has a presence. Most of the cases are being kept quiet for fear of jeopardizing the victims’ release.
The decision to arm the rebels could lead to undesirable consequences. In the fog of war, it would be difficult to monitor where the weapons might end up. It would be naïve to dismiss the possibility that eventually at least some of these weapons will reach dangerous groups including Islamic extremists and those affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Whatever weapons the U.S. provides will be traded, sold or stolen by all the groups on the ground in Syria.
Schrier’s captors accused him of being a CIA agent. Clearly these groups are not friends of the west. What is worse is that they make up the most effective contingent fighting the Assad regime.
Schrier's experience also suggests the difficult choices foreign governments face. In principle, they support the rebels’ goal of overthrowing a dictatorship accused of using chemical weapons against civilians. But they must avoid abetting Islamic extremist groups and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups while doing so.