How much influence does Washington have over the war in Syria? Somewhere between little and none.
How is that evident?
Look at the efforts to marginalize Jabhat al-Nusra, the militant group commonly described as an affiliate of al Qaeda in Iraq.
The State Department is considering designating the group as a terrorist organization and this has brought a swift response from Syria: 83 battalions of rebel fighters have issued a statement expressing solidarity with Al Nusra (h/t Joshua Landis) and told the Americans to mind their own business.
Washington still seems to be populated by puppet masters who imagine they can choreograph a process through which “moderates” are peeled away from “extremists”. What seems to have escaped the attention of these puppeteers is that their puppets do not actually have strings attached. They operate with their own free will.
On Saturday, the New York Times reported:
As the United States pushes the Syrian opposition to organize a viable alternative government, it plans to blacklist the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization, making it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group and most likely prompting similar sanctions from Europe. The hope is to remove one of the biggest obstacles to increasing Western support for the rebellion: the fear that money and arms could flow to a jihadi group that could further destabilize Syria and harm Western interests.
When rebel commanders met Friday in Turkey to form a unified command structure at the behest of the United States and its allies, jihadi groups were not invited.
The Nusra Front’s ally, Al Qaeda in Iraq, is the Sunni insurgent group that killed numerous American troops in Iraq and sowed widespread sectarian strife with suicide bombings against Shiites and other religious and ideological opponents. The Iraqi group played an active role in founding the Nusra Front and provides it with money, expertise and fighters, said Maj. Faisal al-Issawi, an Iraqi security official who tracks jihadi activities in Iraq’s Anbar Province.
But blacklisting the Nusra Front could backfire. It would pit the United States against some of the best fighters in the insurgency that it aims to support. While some Syrian rebels fear the group’s growing power, others work closely with it and admire it — or, at least, its military achievements — and are loath to end their cooperation.
Leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit rebel umbrella group that the United States seeks to bolster, expressed exasperation that the United States, which has refused to provide weapons throughout the conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people, is now opposing a group they see as a vital ally.
The Nusra Front “defends civilians in Syria, whereas America didn’t do anything,” said Mosaab Abu Qatada, a rebel spokesman. “They stand by and watch; they look at the blood and the crimes and brag. Then they say that Nusra Front are terrorists.”
He added, “America just wants a pretext to intervene in Syrian affairs after the revolution.”
The United States has been reluctant to supply weapons to rebels that could end up in the hands of anti-Western jihadis, as did weapons that Qatar supplied to Libyan rebels with American approval. Critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy counter that its failure to support the rebels helped create the opening that Islamic militants have seized in Syria.
The Nusra Front’s appeals to Syrian fighters seem to be working.
At a recent meeting in Damascus, Abu Hussein al-Afghani, a veteran of insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, addressed frustrated young rebels. They lacked money, weapons and training, so they listened attentively.
He told them he was a leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, now working with a Qaeda branch in Syria, and by joining him, they could make their mark. One fighter recalled his resonant question: “Who is hearing your voice today?”
On Friday, demonstrators in several Syrian cities raised banners with slogans like, “No to American intervention, for we are all Jebhat al-Nusra,” referring to the group’s full name, Ansar al-Jebhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, or Supporters of the Front for Victory of the People of Syria. One rebel battalion, the Ahrar, or Free Men, asked on its Facebook page why the United States did not blacklist Mr. Assad’s “terrorist” militias.
Another jihadist faction, the Sahaba Army in the Levant, even congratulated the group on the “great honor” of being deemed terrorists by the United States.
Perhaps it’s inaccurate to say that the U.S. has little influence. Better to say, it does indeed exert great influence whose outcome is predictably the opposite of the one intended. In this ‘art’ of reshaping the Middle East, the Obama administration seems no less skilled than the Bush administration.
Reuters reports: Syrian rebel groups have chosen Brigadier Selim Idris, a former officer in President Bashar al-Assad’s army, to head their new Islamist-dominated military command, opposition sources said on Saturday.
Idris, whose home province of Homs has been at the forefront of the Sunni Muslim-led uprising, was elected by 30 military and civilian members of the joint military command after talks attended by Western and Arab security officials in the Turkish city of Antalia.
“Saleh is not ideological, but he has been appointed top aides who are close to Salafist rebels,” one of the sources who has been following the meeting said.
The joint command named Islamist commanders Abdelbasset Tawil from the northern province of Idlib and Abdelqader Saleh from the adjacent province of Aleppo to serve as Idris’s deputies, the source said.
The unified command includes many with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Salafists, who follow a puritanical interpretation of Islam. It excludes the most senior officers who had defected from Assad’s military.
Its composition, estimated to be two-thirds from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, reflects the growing strength of Islamist fighters on the ground and resembles that of the civilian opposition leadership coalition created under Western and Arab auspices in Qatar last month.
Absent from the group is Colonel Riad al-Asaad, founder of the Syrian Free Army and Brigadier Mustafa al-Sheikh, a senior officer known for his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.
As for the broad Western concern about the danger Western-supplied arms falling into the hands of Al Nusra fighters, the issue is rapidly becoming a moot point. As more and more Syrian military bases are taken over by rebels including Al Nusra, it is the Syrian government’s own arsenal that is becoming instrumental in its downfall. The video below shows the major Regime 111 base west of Aleppo, shortly after it was captured by Al Nusra yesterday. EA WorldView says: “large amounts of equipment, including anti-aircraft weapons, tanks, and artillery pieces, were stored on the base, and with this base captured the insurgents will now be able to focus this weaponry, and their previously captured equipment, on the remaining Assad bases inside and around Aleppo.”