Unlike Hezbollah or Iran under Ahmedinejad, Syria was not seen as possessing a dogged ideological understanding of the resistance for it had long departed from the Ba’ath party’s original Arab nationalism, and indeed while its leadership belonged to the Alawite ethno-religious group they were in fact very different from Iran and Hezbollah in terms of ideological outlook… Thus Syria rather saw sponsoring groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas as a means to both exercise continued pressure on Israel as well as maintain local legitimacy in the absence of military action in the Golan, rather than an Islamic liberation of Jerusalem.
It is a myth to say that the West did not arm the Syrian resistance because of the presence of extremist units (Nusra and ISIS) within it posing a threat that weapons fall in their hands, they did not do so long before these groups ever became a significant presence within the opposition ranks.
The reason the West did not back the mainstream Syrian resistance is because from the very beginning of the conflict when the resistance picked up arms, you would see clearly in every footage of them what their slant and their nature clearly was, always shouting religious slogans like ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) and often using religious speech in their defiance to Assad; the reason they did not back them is because contrary to the secularist (in the sense of ‘non-religious’, i.e. not speaking of religion as informing their politics) rhetoric of the SNC leadership the brigades actually on the ground (that is even when they were overwhelmingly FSA) are overwhelmingly religious moderates, that is they use basic religious slogans as the majority of the society does (that is even if they believe in a pluralist democratic society as the FSA do, they are still informed by a religious ideological leaning; so for example if they would vote they would likely favour a democracy with an Islamic flavour) and are not ‘non-religious’ (in the secularist sense) as for example Assad’s forces tend to clearly be. This is the reason they have not been backed because simply they reflect the majority of the society’s moderate religious nature which if translated in any form of self-determination the West will eventually pose a threat. Similiarly to all the other revolutions, which would likely in time choose to create ‘pan’ governments (transcendental notions strongly outweigh in popularity narrowly nationalistic ones) if they could democratically decide, this is why the West does not trust the Syrian resistance.
So how can the West’s position on Syria be explained? In an ideal world the West would probably prefer an allied government in Syria over Assad, although not to the extent we are led to believe. As late as 2011 the West was involved in negotiations with Syria over the return of the Golan and the lifting of sanctions in exchange with breaking with the ‘traditional’ resistance axis, of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas; while Syria was initially more reluctant to break with the former two by 2011 it eventually became more clear that such an arrangement could be possible.
Unlike Hezbollah or Iran under Ahmedinejad Syria was not seen as possessing a dogged ideological understanding of the resistance for it had long departed from the Ba’ath party’s original Arab nationalism, and indeed while its leadership belonged to the Alawite ethno-religious group they were in fact very different from Iran and Hezbollah in terms of ideological outlook, for while the latter were explicit Shia Islamists the latter was strongly and irrovocably Arab secularist, with even mainstream Shia Iranians often viewing the Alawites as ‘heathens’ or misguided brethren. This secularism often took the explicit form of ‘anti-religion’ rather than ‘non-religious’ (much more so than say Egypt for example, perhaps seen as necessary in a religious background as Syria); this was evident as a routine reality in dealings with state bureaucracy and civil service which disparaged any religious notions and rhetoric and was constantly ‘blasphemous’ in the sense of insulting God and religion (for e.g. when a civilian tries to get some paperwork done and pleads with a state official to help him ‘for God’s sake’ he responds with ‘Don’t mention God to me, here I am your God’). Thus Syria rather saw sponsoring groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas as a means to both exercise continued pressure on Israel as well as maintain local legitimacy in the absence of military action in the Golan, rather than an Islamic liberation of Jerusalem.
Syria under Assad thus perhaps resembled more closely Egypt under Sadat; a possible shift from ‘resistance’ in exchange for land, neo-liberal reforms of the economy (even before a formal shift to the Western sphere of influence), and eventual breaking with Russian loyalty to American stewardship in the offing (Assad’s regime had collaborated with the CIA during the early 2000s in the rendition and torture of prisoners). Ironically both regimes had also come under the auspices and hopes of a ‘corrective revolution’. The West had however been unable to accomplish the shift with Assad (which required the Golan’s return from Israel, a very difficult task) in time when the revolution broke out (which necessitated Assad’s firm interruption of any process of possible reconciliation with Israel to enable his re-emergence as a ‘resistance’ leader), leaving them returning to their prior (rhetorical) hostility. The US was essentially caught in two minds; on one hand wanting to overthrow a ‘tyrannical’ regime to strike a decisive blow to Iranian power in the region (and to Israel’s threat Hezbollah),eliminate the final Russian base in the Middle East, and finally to establish a loyal ally along Israel’s borders, with the added ‘sweeteners’ of being able to re-establish its global credentials as a ‘freedom supporting’ power (which had taken a big hit in recent years) and repairing its standing in the Muslim World. However this simply clashed with the reality of having a dependable ally in a hostile region, a situation without which was likely to prove costly to maintain, and with no advantages of oil to make this worthwhile (as in Libya) there was a prohibitive (strategic) cost in supporting this particular revolution beyond the rhetoric expected, and not due to ‘extremist elements’ as it claimed. The matter of strong Russian and Chinese opposition (as well as the absence of a local appetite for intervention) were not in themselves prohibitive had the conditions been available but added to the effort and cost needed. Simply, the lack of a dependable ally in Syria (i.e. a pliant unpopular guerilla army a la contras which would be willing to rule with terror in American favour, rather than a popularly-backed religiously-moderate one like the FSA brigades) was the main reason why this was not worthwhile. The US Defence Industry does not mind the complexities (for e.g. in terms of conflict with Russia) or economic costs of military interventions nor popular feeling towards it, for it relishes these ‘adventures’ for they are arguably its raison d’etre and economic funding does not come into it (the money is always abundantly there for the military), but it did mind a possible geo-strategic cost which was not in its interest and could potentially cause a threat to it.
While there are shades to the forms of resistance which derive from an Islamic background there are in essence two roads to this current ‘Islamicate’ resistance; there is essentially that of immediate unity, unfortunately emphasised in the likes of ISIS, this does not generally regard the people’s will as relevant (and hence will always be tyrannical by nature), and there is the more ‘nationalistically’ defined type (with shades on how temporary it sees these borders or how much affinity it associates with the ‘nation’, i.e. religious nationalists such as large parts of the FSA as opposed to clear Islamists, the Islamic Front (although the FSA has Islamists as well) – ‘nationalistic’ thus not necessarily in terms of conviction but in terms of pragmatism and priority), which seeks Islamic-flavoured government (again with shades) with the ultimate goal of unity but in a more organic and long-term process; defined ultimately by popular vote or ‘shura’ (consultation) and the people in Syria gradually deciding that process.
(Update 8th of August) Incidentally, Obama’s no-fuss, quick and quietly prepared intervention in Iraq today proves that it was never the case that he was ‘itching’ to intervene in Syria but couldn’t due to ‘Russian opposition’ or ‘internal opposition’ (would those who have opposed his intervention in Syria been now ‘for’ his intervention in Iraq?), but that the US always acts without second thought or debate where Islamists, oil and religious extremists – i.e. where its interests are concerned. Its interests were not in the intervention in Syria.
Meanwhile in ‘surprise’ revelations made in an interview on the 2nd of August, a former spokesman for the Syrian National Council (SNC) frankly stated, disregarding any risk of upsetting his supposed American ‘allies’: “When the Syrian opposition was almost going to penetrate into Damascus one and a half years ago, the White House withdrew all ammunition, because the strategy of the White House is to try to reconcile the Assad regime and the opposition, they hope for some form of reconciliation. Their strategy was always to try and maintain ‘balance’ – everytime they saw the opposition forces winning [the war]… the ammunition would dry completely, and the fighters are forced to withdraw back”. Today of course, there is talk of the US considering working with Assad against ISIS.