Will the U.S. Stop Helping al-Qaeda in Syria?

By Joshua Jacobs

One of the oldest maxims in history is "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

An embattled people will seek help from wherever it can be found. It is perhaps one of the simplest and most basic rules humanity has produced. Yet as we enter the 19th month of the Syrian revolution, it is a rule that decision makers in Washington seem frustratingly ignorant of.

That the Syrian revolution, which has smoldered for almost two years and consumed the lives of nearly 30,000 people, has attracted the attention of al- Qaida and affiliated Islamists groups should come has no surprise - and we have only ourselves to blame.

Since late last fall the Syrian opposition has been pleading for military assistance of some kind.

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While Libyan entreaties were rewarded with the strong support of Western military forces, less substantive pleas from Syria have fallen on deaf ears.

The Syrian opposition, including both the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian National Council, have made it abundantly clear that they believe the revolution can triumph from within, asking only for the means to finish the job. Yet despite these highly achievable requests, few arms and little direct assistance has been forthcoming.

So where is the United States? The same place that it was before its tardy entry into Libya: bound to an administration governed by an acute fear of the unknown.

When given the choice, the Obama administration has hewed relentlessly toward the side of "stability," a word which has become synonymous with inaction.

Succumbing to such fears, and of course considering the impending presidential election, the United States has signaled to FSA representatives that no support is likely to be forthcoming.

Enter al-Qaida. With the FSA failing to win control of the field, and with Syrian cities like Hama and Idlib suffering from incessant siege and assault, Islamist groups found fertile ground to enter the fray. These radical fighters have proven critical in buttressing the morale of the resistance movement.

Though relatively small in number compared to the dispersed battalions of the FSA, they have inflicted heavy casualties on the Syrian military, mostly in rural ambushes and bombings.

As a result of their high-profile activities and energetic presence on the ground they have established a valuable political space for themselves, one which they continue to enlarge.

It is frustrating and worrying - it also didn't have to happen.

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Joshua Jacobs is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

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