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Michael Weiss in rebel-controlled Syria

Michael Weiss has written an account for Foreign Affairs magazine of his recent visit to the rebel-controlled Syrian city of al-Bab and a rebel-controlled section of Syria’s largest city Aleppo.

Michael, who blogs for The Telegraph, has been critical of the Obama administration’s outspoken but largely hands-off support for the Syrian uprising.

The Obama administration still professes not to know who the Syrian rebels are, even as busloads of foreign correspondents do the work of the Central Intelligence Agency in profiling them. The White House fears that the rebels’ ranks have been infiltrated by extremist or sectarian groups, most notoriously al Qaeda, and thus is wary of committing money and arms to their cause. Some analysts cite this restraint as proof of the administration’s prudence rather than of an incoherence that risks damning Syria to Washington’s self-fulfilling prophecies. Those opposed to U.S. intervention warned that it would inevitably breed jihadism, sectarianism, and regional instability — all of which have already come to pass. Meanwhile, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have had no such qualms about backing the opposition, albeit selectively and to further their own ideological interests. The rebels, for their part, have not equivocated in their call for outside help, giving weekly protests such names as “No-Fly Zone Friday.” It is the West’s hearts and minds that need winning over.

On the ground, however, the geopolitics of the struggle takes a back seat to more exigent considerations. The real story continues to be the unraveling of four decades of dynastic totalitarian rule. As horrifying as the carnage has been, the resilience of some segments of Syrian society leaves no doubt that the regime is finished. In parts of the country, an alternative to Assad’s rule is already being joyously experienced and seen as worth dying for.

While Michael is largely sympathetic to the Free Syrian Army (with which he traveled), and the emerging civil society in areas they control, he cautions:

[T]he makings of a civil society are not the same thing as an actual civil society. As a recent video circulating on the Internet appears to show, during the siege of al-Bab, rebels threw the corpses of regime personnel off the rooftop of a post-office building that government forces were using as a security headquarters. Al-Bab opposition activists have since claimed that the bodies belonged to snipers who had killed seven rebels. They have also condemned the act and said that the identities of those who threw the bodies off the roof are not yet known. Still, this video is yet another reminder that Syria is a brutalized society. Even as some rebels try to act responsibly by adopting a martial code of conduct or putting their captives on trial before meting out punishment, they must overcome fear, sectarianism, and a deep-rooted sense of tribal justice. Lucky is the revolution in which the ennobling desire for freedom vanquishes the rebarbative impulse for vengeance.

Read it all.