Syria: how to make a bad situation worse

The West’s strategy-free tinkering has opened the door to the very Islamist groups it has been fighting elsewhere.

Karl Sharro

Topics World

With characteristic short-sightedness, the US and its Western allies have contrived to place themselves in an awkward position with respect to the on-going civil war in Syria. A series of bizarre events this week has confirmed beyond doubt al-Qaeda’s presence in the country, in the process highlighting the contradictions that beset US and Western policy there. The prospect of the US indirectly supporting the same jihadists that it was still fighting in Iraq until recently is an indication of how convoluted its regional policy has become in the absence of clear aims and a sense of direction.

It’s been a hectic week for al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria. Over the weekend, a message by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri urged rebels in Syria to fight to establish an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. On Tuesday, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced a ‘merger’ between his group and the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra, generally regarded as one of the fiercest rebel groups in Syria, to be known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Then on Wednesday, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, released a recorded statement admitting that his group has received support from the Iraqi al-Qaeda, but denied knowledge of the merger and then went on to pledge allegiance to al-Zawahiri.

The link between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda has long been suspected but this is the first ‘official’ confirmation by the group itself. Al-Nusra was designated as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department back in December, identifying the group as one of the ‘aliases’ of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The move was seen as an attempt by the US to pave the way for increasing its support to the Syrian rebels while allaying fears about that support being diverted to jihadists.

This was part of the US effort to bolster the moderate forces among the Syrian rebels, potentially allowing them to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and, perhaps more crucially, strengthen their hand against the generically-labelled ‘extremists’ such as Jabhat al-Nusra. While the US has officially restricted its support to the rebels to ‘non-lethal assistance’, there are reports that it provided military training for rebel forces in Jordan.

But American policy in Syria is far from clear. The US won’t, for the time being, intervene militarily or provide the type of weapons the rebels would need to achieve a decisive victory, but it allows its regional allies to supply enough weapons and ammunition to prevent the rebels from being defeated. In as much as there is a recognisable policy, it seems to be one of maintaining a balance on the ground while keeping an eye open to ‘strategic threats’, such as Assad’s stockpile of unconventional weapons falling into the wrong hands. (Thus emphasising that the US still regards them as in safe hands while in Assad’s possession.)

But while the US administration is attempting to portray this as a cautious and morally just policy, it is inadvertently contributing to the creation of an unwieldy and complex situation in Syria that threatens further instability for years to come. America’s backing of the externally-based political opposition has yielded little results in establishing control over rebel groups within Syria, and there are serious questions being asked about whether the ‘Free Syrian Army’, generally regarded as the secular alternative to the jihadist rebels, is the coherent organisation it is assumed to be.

Meanwhile, the only forces that seem to be making real progress on the ground politically and militarily appear to be Islamists of one shade or another. The recent takeover of the city of Raqqah in Northern Syria was achieved primarily by Islamist forces and was followed by the implementation of Islamic law within the city.

In his statement, the leader of al-Nusra, al-Jawlani, while attempting to distance the group from the decision to rebrand as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, insisted that Islamic rule is in fact being implemented, even if it is not being advertised as such. Despite his attempts to show that his group understands the particularities of the Levant, there can be no doubt that Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups ultimately aim to establish an Islamic state in Syria and implement Sharia law.

This is an aspect that is widely misunderstood about Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups in Syria, especially in attempting to make a distinction between their fighting prowess and their ideology. What makes groups like al-Nusra particularly effective is that they are driven ideologically, and are therefore more disciplined and organised than other groups. They are more ruthless, too: they have taken responsibility for many car and suicides bombs.

Most observers seem to agree that al-Nusra & Co still don’t represent the majority of the rebels, but there can be doubt about their increasing influence and presence in Syria. Al-Nusra, in particular, has been building its grassroots support by providing essential services like the distribution of bread. In contrast to the internationally recognised leaders of the opposition, who are predominantly based outside Syria and rarely venture into the country, al-Nusra has a tangible and effective presence on the ground.

Yes, the US and its allies still hope that they can control the outcome of the Syrian civil war and stem this organic growth of jihadists by supporting ‘acceptable’ opposition groups and leaders. This policy is all the more irrational because it was support from America’s regional allies in the Gulf that bolstered the jihadist groups in the first place. For all intents and purposes, the US is helping create a problem for itself in Syria that it will no doubt attempt to resolve in the future.

Throughout the Syrian uprising, the Western powers have acted with little regard to the consequences of their actions while portraying this as a policy of both necessity and principle. But neither is true. Their persistent meddling appears to have no rhyme or reason, beyond Western leaders portraying themselves as the good guys in the fight against Assad, a man they had no objections to dealing with until the eve of the uprising.

Karl Sharro is an architect and Middle East commentator based in London. He blogs at Karl reMarks. Follow him on Twitter at @KarlreMarks.

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Topics World


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