In Syria’s official parlance, the Sheik Suleiman military base north of Aleppo has fallen to a “terrorist gang” — the term President Bashar Assad’s regime typically uses to describe its armed opponents. But for once, the Obama Administration might be inclined to — at least partially — agree. The rebel group that reportedly led the assault on the sprawling facility was Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist outfit designated an “international terrorist organization” by the U.S. State Department on Monday. And while the Jabhat al-Nusra front, seen as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, remains a minority within the broad ranks of rebel fighters (which include a far wider spectrum of less extreme Islamists), it is an increasingly significant one given the dedication of its members and their willingness to take a leading role in the toughest combat situations.
The U.S. decision is intended to isolate extremists elements from the broader rebellion by trying to choke off external support, some of which may be coming from countries allied with Washington, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and also signaling other rebel groups that the Jabhat al-Nusra front is off limits to those seeking support from Western countries. It has been criticized by other rebel commanders on the ground. The jihadists, however, have proved themselves to be valuable partners in combat despite their embrace of an ideology anathema to most Syrians. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been faulted for failure to arm the uprising.
Indeed, the Financial Times reports that even leaders of the moderate U.S.-backed opposition had urged Washington to delay the terrorist designation, arguing that the group’s place in the rebellion has been secured by the financial and military capabilities it has brought to the front line, and that its influence could only be countered through providing alternative sources of funding and weapons to those fighting on the ground. Rebel commanders last weekend met in Turkey, with Western and Arab officials present, to forge a unified command structure linked with the Western-backed National Coalition forged in Qatar in October. Some of those present at the meeting made clear they expect their decision to unite under the auspices of the coalition to be rewarded with shipments of antitank and antiaircraft weapons. And they didn’t appear to share the U.S. view of the Jabhat al-Nusra front, which was not invited to the meeting.
“They have their own leaders and their own structure, they fight side by side with the Free Syrian Army,” Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi, a senior commander in the new group told Reuters. “We have only seen good things from them, and they are good fighters.”
Washington’s move against the leading al-Qaeda-oriented group — although by no means the only extremist militia — in the Syrian rebellion comes as the U.S. and its allies move to graft an acceptable and capable leadership onto the diverse and dispersed collection of local militias and civilian coordinating committees that make up the rebellion. To that end, Western and Arab governments supervised the creation in Qatar in November of a new Syrian National Coalition, which European and Gulf-Arab governments have since recognized as “the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people” — a quasi-government-in-waiting status that creates a framework for providing economic, diplomatic and even military support. The U.S., which has been more cautious, extended the same recognition to the coalition on Dec. 11, as the so-called Friends of Syria readied to meet the next day in Marrakech, Morocco. Although the Obama Administration has declined thus far to provide military support to the rebellion, its Arab allies have been providing infantry weapons and cash. And France and Britain have been agitating for changes to the E.U. arms embargo on Syria, to allow them to provide military aid to the rebels. Britain is even reportedly preparing contingency plans for a military and naval combat role in support of rebel forces.
The broad strategy they’re advocating is to empower the Syrian National Coalition and establish its authority on the ground by making it the sole address for foreign military and economic aid, on which the rebellion depends. Coalition leaders now say there’s no need for Western intervention to create a no-fly zone; they can do so themselves if foreign backers will supply surface-to-air missiles.
The emphasis on the weapons dimension is a reflection of the fact that as the Syrian state continues to crumble, power on the ground is passing to local military-dominated structures. The challenge is to persuade those militias to accept the political leadership of the Western-backed coalition established in Doha. “The truth is that these exiled dissidents now have very little influence over the uprising,” wrote Aron Lund, a Swedish analyst who has studied the proliferation of Islamist groups in the Syrian rebellion. “With Syria in a state of civil war since about a year, opposition leadership has drifted away from the politicians and diplomats, into the hands of guerrilla leaders. Among these armed groups, things are taking a nasty turn, with the uprising’s sectarian character growing more apparent by the day.” While there may be token representation of Christians, Alawites and Druze in the ranks of the exiled opposition, Lund noted, “the armed resistance is almost exclusively Sunni Muslim.”
Western hopes of steering the rebellion away from sectarian and extremist inclinations depend, some argue, on using the incentive of arms supplies through the coalition. “We need to exercise some leadership and a management role in the arms business,” former State Department Syria official Frederic C. Hof told the Los Angeles Times. “We need to try to dominate the logistics and the decisionmaking on who gets what and who doesn’t. We need to do it working hand in glove with others; you don’t want it to be seen as an exclusively American effort … But we’ve got to have some skin in the game.” Hof argued that the previous U.S. reluctance to further militarize the situation “is no longer relevant … The accelerating demise of the regime and the threat of sectarian bloodletting is destroying Syria. Time is our enemy. The worse it gets, the harder it gets for Syria to be rebuilt.”
Whether or not Washington succeeds in deterring rebel fighters on the ground from working with Jabhat al-Nusra jihadists remains to be seen. But even the military leadership that Western and Arab allies are cultivating as their best bet is nonetheless reportedly dominated by Islamists with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and even to Salafi groups. Indeed, despite its Western backing, even the political leadership of the coalition is nonetheless also dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. So, as the Friends of Syria gather in Morocco on Wednesday, the dawning reality is that it may be past the time when Western policymakers could hope to achieve their most desirable outcome in Syria. Increasingly the challenge is becoming one of finding the least worst option.