Rebel fighters stand guard as a convoy of buses carrying Sunni rebels and civilians, who were evacuated from Zabadani and Madaya, as part of a reciprocal evacuation deal for four besieged towns, travel in al-Rashideen to journey towards rebel-held Idlib,
Rebel fighters stand guard as a convoy of buses carrying Sunni rebels and civilians, who were evacuated from Zabadani and Madaya, as part of a reciprocal evacuation deal for four besieged towns, travel in al-Rashideen to journey towards rebel-held Idlib, Syria, April 2017.
Ammar Abdullah / REUTERS

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “coming to an end.” But with the rapid decline of both the Islamic State (or ISIS) and foreign support for the so-called rebels, this notion is wishful thinking for most of the international community. For years, news of Assad’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. So too have the negative consequences of his survival, not because of his record but because the most likely alternative to his rule has been even worse, at least as far as U.S. national security is concerned.

Few observers even know what they’ve been advocating, given the pro-rebel bias among Western media outlets. Although they have assiduously broadcast the blood on Assad’s hands, these outlets have also tended to whitewash the rebels to sell the case for regime change. Take, for instance, the Syrian refugee crisis. The conventional wisdom holds that the refugees are pro-rebel, even though detailed survey research finds that the reality is far more nuanced. Most refugees say they fled Assad. But they also say they fled the armed opposition. By far, the most common explanation was that refugees fled both. Honest reporting about all sides of the conflict is imperative for governments and citizens around the world to understand the nature of the regime and the opposition alike.

To appreciate the pro-rebel bias dominant in Western outlets, compare this past spring’s heavy media coverage of the April 4 chemical attack in the Idlib town of Khan Shaykhun to the comparatively little attention given to the suicide attack in the al-Rashideen neighborhood of western Aleppo that occurred on April 15. As a terrorism researcher, I received nonstop interview requests about the former but almost none about the latter.

One explanation for the disparity in media attention is that only the Khan Shaykhun massacre involved Sarin gas, a chemical weapon of mass destruction often seen as taboo in the international community for its indiscriminate effects. Yet the relatively underreported Rashideen attack was arguably even more gruesome. Whereas the Khan Shaykhun attack killed about 90 people, the Rashideen attack killed at least 126, including 80 children en route to Aleppo as part of an international agreement. The only crime of the victims was being Shiite; they were headed to safer ground because their towns of Fuaa and Kefraya were besieged by rebels. The high child death toll was no accident. The perpetrators lured the hungry children with potato chips moments before the suicide blast destroyed the convoy.

What accounts for the differing coverage is the culprit behind each attack. Although the blame game continues, most analysts believe that the Syrian military carried out the Khan Shaykhun attack, whereas Assad’s enemies were behind the one in Rashideen. Unsurprisingly, Western media outlets seized on the former massacre to stress that Assad must go. Pushing the pro-regime change narrative, the lede in the Washington Post ran, “Trump finally realizes the truth about Syria’s Assad. Now what?” The Guardian then published an editorial titled “Assad Knows He Acts with Impunity.” Al Arabiya ran the story “Assad Regime Responsible for Awful Syria Chemical Attack,” and the Associated Press focused on how “Syria’s Assad faces mounting pressure after [the] chemical attack.” Haaretz likewise fixated on Assad. In response to the attack and the media coverage it generated, U.S. President Donald Trump acknowledged that “my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much” and then authorized missile strikes against the Syrian air force. The international community from the United Kingdom to Qatar joined the post-attack chorus that Assad must go given his brutality.

No such outcry happened over the Rashideen attack, which CNN reporter Nick Patton Walsh trivialized as a mere “hiccup.” When covered at all, this incident was depicted across outlets as essentially perpetrator-less. The Associated Press neglected to mention who had likely committed the attack. The same was true for USA Today, the Daily Beast, Al Arabiya, and pretty much every other major international news outlet. Journalist Robert Fisk noted that, although more innocent people were killed in the Rashideen attack, they “were the victims of the wrong kind of killer,” as “the culprits might have been too closely associated with us in the West.”

Assad’s main enemies in Syria have been dangerous extremists, no matter how many governments fund them, train them, or arm them.

Assad’s main enemies in Syria have been dangerous extremists, no matter how many governments fund them, train them, or arm them. Ahrar al-Sham, the Salafist rebel group that was supposed to be protecting the buses of Shiite evacuees targeted in the Rashideen attack, models itself after the Taliban and has close historical ties to al Qaeda. Ahrar and al Qaeda share not only a similar Islamist ideology but also members. Leaders of the two groups often engaged in joint military operations. Ahrar has made it a habit of disavowing al Qaeda at times, only to team up with it in combat later. It’s no exaggeration to say that Ahrar’s biggest achievement to date has been working hand-in-glove with al Qaeda to capture Idlib from Assad in March 2015 while vocally denouncing U.S. airstrikes against their on-again, off-again Salafist partner in arms. Prominent Syria commentators have cheered the jihadis as anti-Assad “heroes” while repeating Ahrar’s admonition against attacking al Qaeda lest the counterterrorism measures interfere with the blessed rebellion.   

For several reasons, there is no way to be certain who committed the Rashideen attack. Unlike ISIS, most other terrorist groups tend to withhold claiming credit for attacks when they’re directed against innocent people because of the political fallout. Moreover, the groups fighting Assad have constantly rebranded themselves with new names and alliances. Consider the evolution of al Qaeda’s Syrian chapter from “Jabhat al-Nusra” to “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham” to “Tahrir al-Sham,” which has included so-called moderate rebels formerly vetted, funded, and armed by the United States. Additionally, a growing body of political science research emphasizes that terrorist groups are not internally homogenous unitary actors but instead consist of members with different incentive structures often at odds with the official political goals of the group. For this reason, lower-level members of a terrorist group often act in defiance of the leadership’s targeting preferences. The repeated defections to and from U.S.-funded groups, al Qaeda, and even ISIS indicates motley crews even when operating under the same banner. Even if Ahrar leaders oppose sectarian massacre, for example, they may be too weak to restrain wayward members of their group, never mind the more openly extremist ones.

Above all, it’s hard to discern who committed the Rashideen attack because Syria has no shortage of sectarian fanatics who often express interest in exterminating the Shiites and Christians who desperately count on Assad for protection. When the United States first designated the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria a terrorist organization in the early days of the revolution, thousands of rebels demonstrated under the banner of “We are all Nusra.” So while Western media mocked Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin for saying the rebels are terrorist-ridden, the rebels themselves were openly expressing solidarity with al Qaeda. After years downplaying the violent extremist element among the Syrian rebels, Western media outlets unsurprisingly find it awkward to cover attacks like the one in Rashideen. There are of course some worthy allies among the rebels, but not nearly as many as regime-change enthusiasts have spent the past few years claiming.

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  • MAX ABRAHMS is Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations. 
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