LATAKIA, Syria — Syrian officials have a sharp message for American policymakers about the war in this country: you should be on our side.
“The militants that we face here, they are like the head of the snake,” said one Syrian army colonel, who, like all the military officials interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If they win here, next they will come for you.”
It’s a refrain The Huffington Post heard repeatedly over a recent week of meetings with top government officials, including several senior military officers, in a northern, pro-government bastion along the Mediterranean Sea.
In these parts, like much of the rest of government-controlled Syria, the war has long been depicted along simple, dichotomous lines: there is the safety and order provided by the government on the one hand; and the chaos and radicalism delivered by Islamic terrorists on the other.
This rendition of the Syrian civil war is widely dismissed by analysts and ridiculed in the West, where it is perceived as a ploy to justify a brutal war against any opponents of the government.
But it also turns on a dark, present-day reality about some of the fighting groups that compose the Syrian opposition, a significant portion of which include Islamic extremists. At least two groups have close affiliations with Al Qaeda. One group, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government in 2012, while others, like the even more hardline Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, have issued strict edicts — even death penalties — against violators of their crude interpretations of Islamic law in the areas they control.
“It’s a huge problem if the Americans don’t realize how dangerous these Islamic fighters are,” said a general in the port city of Tartus, in a separate interview. “Because they have no friends in the world. They will fight anyone — maybe now they are the ally of America, but later?”
The Syrian government, of course, has played on fears of about these terrorist groups since the start of the uprising, often arguing in an unpersuasive way that the entire revolution was a product of foreigners and terrorists.
Their accounting of events tends to overlook or outright deny the portion of the opposition that does not approve of either. (“Are you sure you aren’t inventing these people from your own imagination?” a government-provided interpreter in Latakia asked, before translating a question about supporters of the opposition who might fall in the middle.)
But the past year has lent some legitimacy to the claims — particularly after segments of the rebel fighting groups were involved in atrocities and massacres -- and provided cover for officials to make the case that the U.S. ought to be doing even more than holding back its support for the rebels. Since December, more moderate rebel factions have been attempting to fight back against the extremist elements in their ranks, with limited results.
Among supporters of the government in embattled cities like Damascus, the concept has started to gain wide currency.
“Do they not remember 9/11?” said a shopkeeper in the old city of Damascus, who gave his name as Salahideen. “If the terrorists win here, next they will want Europe, and after that America. Do they not see that?”
As it happens, this very concern has played an instrumental role in inhibiting the Obama administration from providing rebel fighters large quantities of weapons or funds.
In a statement to The Huffington Post, a senior administration official confirmed that the White House was closely watching the influence of terrorism on the opposition, but dismissed the notion that the U.S. might switch sides in the war.
“We are very concerned about extremism in Syria, and are working to isolate extremists and bolster moderates,” the official said. “As we have long said, the Assad regime created this environment ... It is inconceivable that the Syrian people would consent to Bashar Assad’s continued brutal leadership.”
To Syrian officials, American restraint falls far short of what they say should be a shared counterterrorism campaign.
“It is bewildering that what’s going on is not being understood around the world,” the general in charge of Latakia province said in an interview in his office. “We have been warning of this for years, and no one listened. Now, you reap what you sow.”