When the Syrian Rebels Lose Their Halo

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The Syrian opposition has been running into some bad publicity lately. Today Human Rights Watch said rebels have been torturing and executing people. And over the weekend rebels set off two car bombs that killed civilians along with the security forces that were targeted.

Of course, it's not shocking to see car bombs used in a conflict of this sort. Still, when car bombs kill civilians in America or Europe we call that terrorism. For westerners accustomed to seeing courageous rebels pinned down in Homs, felled by ruthless Syrian forces, this sort of publicity complicates the narrative.

We better get used to it, because there's more car bombs and executions to come. That, at least, is the view of Joshua Landis, whose blog Syria Comment is among the best resources on the Syrian conflict. In his latest post he explained that, with the rebels' attempt to hold ground in Homs and elsewhere having failed, they'll have to revert to "phase II" in the standard insurgency playbook. Phase II, Landis explains, features:

Terrorism: these techniques include bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, threats, mutilation, murder, torture, and blackmail. These actions will be used to provoke the government into overreactions that discredit the regime, alienate the populace, and demonstrate its inability to protect them.

Landis expects the insurgency to acquire an increasingly Islamist cast. There will be "Sunni sectarian recruitment, Islamic martyrdom operations, and all the aspects of Middle Eastern insurgency that we have seen used so effectively against occupation forces in the recent past, whether used by Palestinians, Afghans or Iraqis." Once again, a conflict that begins with essentially secular grievances will gradually assume the character of a religious conflict.

If indeed the Syrian insurgency starts to strike westerners as darker and more menacing, I suspect that supporters of intervention will try to work with that. They'll argue that Syria will be better off in the long run if it can skip, or at least shrink, the phase of the civil war that entails ongoing religious radicalization. And they'll say that outside intervention could accomplish that.

And maybe it could. I don't know enough to say. Meanwhile, you might as well go ahead and watch this pro-opposition hip-hop video by Omar Offendum, which was released yesterday, because it has a purity that may get harder to square with reality as time goes by.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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