Al Qaeda has thrived in Syria thanks to the continued political survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Washington’s failure to adequately support the revolution’s more moderate opposition groups, Syria expert Charles Lister wrote Wednesday.
“The principal benefactor of Assad’s survival is not Assad, nor Russia, Iran, Hezbollah or even ISIS — it is Al Qaeda,” Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of “The Syrian Jihad,” wrote in the Daily Beast.
He continued: “Having spent the past five years embedding itself within broader revolutionary forces and strategically choosing to limit and very slowly reveal its extremist face, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is reaping the rewards of our failures to solve the Syrian crisis.”
A proposal for stepped-up coordination between the US and Russia against Nusra in Syria — which would involve enhanced information sharing about the group’s positions — was confirmed on Wednesday in a phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama.
But the new initiative is more likely to enhance than hinder Nusra’s momentum in Syria, where the group has “accepted more than 3,000 Syrians” in the country’s Idlib and Aleppo provinces in the past five months alone.
Experts say any perceived coordination between the US and Russia is likely to increase the opposition’s disenchantment with the West.
Rebels have expressed concern that weakening Nusra would strengthen Assad. And in its campaign to eliminate Syria’s “terrorists,” Russia has primarily bombed moderate-opposition factions and civilian targets, including hospitals, schools, and bakeries.
“The continuing mingling in places of the so-called moderate opposition” with Nusra is “complicating anti-terrorist action,” the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last month.
Acquiescing to a central Russian request, the US has reportedly begun urging rebel groups to leave areas where Nusra is present so that Russia warplanes can target them without hitting the mainstream opposition. To that end, the US has demonstrated that it is more willing to work on the Kremlin’s terms than those of the rebels.
Ultimately, many experts say, the opposition groups Russia has relentlessly targeted since late September 2015 are the only actors on the ground capable of challenging the influence Nusra is trying to cultivate among Syria’s Sunni Arab population. A
ccomodating Moscow’s demands in the war, then, is seen as a “slippery slope” that is more likely to serve Nusra’s interests than those of the US.
‘Adverse consequences galore’
Nusra’s rise has boxed Washington into a chicken-and-egg dilemma: To coordinate with Russia against Nusra would be to legitimise Assad’s rule, fuel Al Qaeda’s narrative and ensure the continuation of the war. To spare Nusra and increase support for the opposition, on the other hand, would infuriate the regime and its allies and lead them to double down on the battlefield.
Emile Hokayem, a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said on Twitter that Obama’s proposal to coordinate with the Russians was likely to have “adverse consequences galore.”
“Obama resisted entanglement in Syria only to embrace entanglement w/ Russia there, probably making everything worse. Do Kerry and the geniuses at the White House realise that coordinated bombing of Nusra under current circumstances will actually benefit Nusra?” he wrote, referring to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Some members of the Syrian opposition, however, believe Obama has prioritised US national security — which he believes requires weakening Nusra in the short term — over the longer-term effect it may have on Syria’s revolution.
“The US has info that Nusra is trying to do something against US national interests … somewhere in the world, and they are taking it very seriously,” a Syrian opposition member told Al-Monitor on Tuesday. “And accordingly, they offered to Russia to work with them on that issue, to weaken and defeat Nusra, with the condition that Russia and the regime should respect the cessation and allow food and material to come into Syria.”
Experts have scoffed at the administration’s hope that it can get concessions
for Syrian rebels and civilians by agreeing to share intelligence with Moscow, such as more pressure on the regime to stop bombing civilian targets and to ground its air force.
That is especially difficult, they say, given the US’ utter lack of leverage in Syria and its demonstrated unwillingness to hold Russia or the regime accountable for their repeated attacks on civilian targets and rebel groups backed by the West.
“Russia has positioned itself militarily to guarantee that any unilateral US military action against the regime seriously risks at least a great power shooting match over Syria, if not an apocalyptic nuclear war,” journalist Sam Heller wrote in War On The Rocks late last month.
Heller added: “America is currently unwilling to test Russia and directly press the regime militarily, leaving it to Russia to ensure its allies’ compliance with the cessation of hostilities and deliver their buy-in for a political settlement.”
Analysts are divided over how wedded Moscow really is to an Assad regime in Syria. Some say the Russians don’t care as much as the Iranians about keeping Assad in power, as long as the war is settled on the Kremlin’s terms. Others, however, contend that the idea that Russia would work with the Syrian government to keep state institutions intact while transitioning Assad out
betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how Syria works.
“There is no regime without Assad, so if the Obama administration ever believed the Russians and the Iranians when they said they would try to transition Assad out, they were living in a fantasy,” Middle East expert Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider last October. “If you take Assad out, the whole system collapses.”
For the US to propose a working relationship with Russia, then, is ultimately bound to entrench Assad, whose continued survival gives Nusra a revolutionary purpose with which rebels and civilians can identify.
“By proclaiming itself specifically as a revolutionary movement fundamentally opposed to the Assad regime, Al Qaeda has sealed its future in part to that of Bashar al-Assad,” Lister wrote in a briefing for the Middle East Institute in March, just after Assad and his allies recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State. “Should one remain, the other will invariably survive also.”
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