BEIRUT, Lebanon — When President Barack Obama first dangled the possibility of launching a punitive military strike against the Syrian regime, he may have been caught off balance by the reaction of some of Bashar al-Assad's staunchest opponents. Rather than gleefully welcoming support from the world's biggest superpower, some Islamist rebels worry that the United States isn't really coming for Assad -- it's coming for them.
"America is going to strike empty bases that are useless to the regime and this cosmetic strike will then be used as a front to go after us," said Suhaib, a 30-year-old fighter with the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, in a Skype interview. "The Americans decided to destroy airports, arms and munitions factories, and scientific research centers when they realized that the honorable revolutionaries of the Free Syrian Army and the jihadists of the Islamist factions are on the verge of seizing them."
If there is one thing that Syria's diverse armed factions converge around, it's the nagging feeling that the United States wants to pull a fast one on them.
In extensive interviews, several rank-and-file fighters and high-ranking commanders expressed the fear that U.S. forces will sweep in at the very last moment, "stealing" the hard-fought Syrian revolution from them after all sides are sufficiently weakened and installing a pliable, hand-picked leadership in Damascus.
"There was never a single day in my entire life where I ever felt like I could trust the Americans or the West in general," said Abu Obaida, who leads a small battalion within the Ahrar al-Sham movement, a countrywide jihadist group that nevertheless maintains close ties to mainstream rebel groups. "This complete lack of trust comes from the strike on Iraq ... American forces seized the oil, brainwashed people's minds, took over state institutions, and they went in based on a pretext."
He scoffs at Obama's humanitarian arguments for embroiling the United States in the Syria conflict. With hundreds of people dying every day, he finds it odd that America would be moved to act by a single chemical weapons attack. It is merely an affectation, he believes, to dampen Americans' outrage about embroiling them in yet another military campaign in the Middle East.
"They left us to die for two years," he says. "So can I ask: What difference is there if there's blood or not? It is not a moral imperative for them. We all know that."
The reaction of Abu Obaida and like-minded fighters, however, is just one aspect of the diverse rebel response to the prospect of U.S. military intervention in Syria. While it is difficult to find a single rebel fighter who is not skeptical of American overtures, most moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders welcome a U.S. military strike as the only potential salvation from the horrors of the Syrian regime's crackdown.
These divergent opinions have become a microcosm of the larger challenges facing the sprawling armed opposition. While a U.S. strike may present the rebels with an unprecedented military opportunity, the fractured movement has seemingly failed to organize a coordinated response.
Even some of the rebel groups who were on the front lines of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, which the United States says killed over 1,400 people, are ambivalent about U.S. military intervention. Liwa al-Islam, a Salafist group that operates in the eastern Damascus suburbs, released a statement that warned darkly of the true American intentions behind intervening in Syria.