The debate about whether to arm the Syrian rebels is centered around the question which groups are “good” rebels (those who favor democratic regimes and the United States) or “bad” rebels (various kinds of jihadists). The Obama administration is widely reported to be reluctant to aid Syrian rebels due to the difficulty of identifying “leaders who are committed to a unified, democratic Syria that respects minority rights” as opposed to “militants who might turn them against Western interests.” In Dissent, Michael Walzer finds that his readers “would be happy to see the victory of Syrians who have been studying John Stuart Mill or who take their cue from Swedish social democracy,” which he warns is not going to happen.
By focusing on whether or not the rebels favor democracy, the United States risks falling into the same moral trap that ensnared it in Libya. There, Washington found itself supporting rebels who committed very similar atrocities to those committed by the forces it came to save them from, namely Qaddafi’s goons. A recently issued report from the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria accused Syrian rebels of "war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture . . . perpetrated by anti-government armed groups." The American media paid little attention to reports that nearly half of those killed in Syria are not rebels or civilians on their side—but Alawite. Both sides almost never take prisoners, but kill those who surrender. And the rebels put snipers on roofs of schools in session.
The accusations are reminiscent of the findings of the International Commission of Inquiry charged with investigating human-rights abuses in Libya, where it was concluded that anti-Qaddafi forces committed a broad range of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including “extra-judicial executions, torture, enforced disappearance and indiscriminate attacks and pillage.” Similarly, Amnesty International released a report detailing war crimes committed by the rebels beginning as early as February 2011, including the detention, torture and lynching of pro-Qaddafi loyalists (as well as some who were only assumed to be pro-Qaddafi). Those who weren’t murdered were tortured with electric rods and beaten with belts, sticks and metal bars.
After that conflict ended, Western observers found mass graves. Many of the bodies were discovered shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs, execution style. Reports indicate that the rebels often did not wait to determine if people were actually involved in the fighting, but assumed, because of where they were or what they looked like, that they were Qaddafi loyalists and immediately jailed, brutalized and killed them.
Evidence shows that black Libyans and foreign migrant workers were specifically targeted by the rebels in what appear to be acts of ethnic cleansing. African Union chairman Jean Ping said that the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC) assumes that “all blacks are mercenaries… They are killing people, normal workers, mistreating them.” Reporters have witnessed the abuse of hundreds of black Africans, who have been detained, beaten, and killed indiscriminately. Additionally, rebels have been accused of frequent and widespread rape of women in the black refugee camps outside Tripoli.