Bin Laden in Syria

(Manu Brabo/AP)

To ex-members of the anti-imperialist left propelled into the arms of NATO by the Libyan war last year, the conflict now devastating Syria pits the regime of Bashar al-Assad against “the Syrian people.”

Thanks to this brilliantly clear dichotomy, anyone less than gung ho about providing weapons and other forms of support to the Free Syrian Army instantly becomes complicit in mass murder, having forsaken humanity in favor of lazy contrarianism and clichéd Sixties rhetoric.

Assad is entirely deserving of popular wrath, though the Manichean Syrian-people-versus-government distinction excludes Syrian citizens who support Assad despite technically qualifying as people.

Other incongruities arise from “the Syrian people” not being all Syrian. As the New York Times reported back in July:

The evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda. An important border crossing with Turkey that fell into Syrian rebels’ hands last week, Bab al-Hawa, has quickly become a jihadist congregating point.

Of course, Assad has disingenuously endeavored to cast all opposition to his rule as the work of foreign terrorists. But the blanket application of “the people” designation by Assad’s detractors is potentially just as problematic. Should the category “the Afghan people” have been applied to Osama bin Laden in 1986?

Given bin Laden’s post-freedom fighting trajectory, this analogy may seem crass, alarmist, blasphemous. But it does offer a reminder as to what can happen when the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend formula is pursued with no consideration of the consequences that might follow the elimination of the mutual enemy.

The presence of bin Laden’s progeny among the anti-Assad militants should meanwhile expose the recklessness of cheerleading the FSA as the embodiment of the Syrian people, especially if Syria ends up serving as another training ground for jihadist warfare — something that will naturally affect other people too.