Vapid Western Policy Is Enabling Al-Qaeda in Syria
The CIA last month reportedly suspended the military aid it had been extending from a covert operations base in Turkey to vetted Free Syrian Army groups in northern Syria.
The reported freeze in support followed attacks led by jihadis against Free Syrian Army groups in January. It is widely believed that the CIA’s decision is meant to prevent weapons and cash from falling into the hands of extremists. Free Syrian Army commanders also said that the resumption of external support depends largely on their forming a united and coherent front against the jihadis.
These two conditions sound reasonable, yet suspending external support would only exacerbate the problem. It leaves the needs of the Free Syrian Army unaddressed, which hinders their possible unification, and it leaves them as targets for al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, who, because of these groups’ cooperation with the West, view them as an imminent threat rather than an ally in fighting the Assad regime.
The CIA, along with allies including the United Kingdom, France, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, established an undercover operations room in Turkey in mid-2013. The operations base is known as the Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi, or MOM. The CIA-coordinated military aid aimed to coordinate the efforts of opposition backers and to funnel support -- including salaries, light arms, training, ammunition, and limited quantities of anti-tank missiles -- to CIA-vetted FSA factions fighting to topple the Syrian regime.
The external support continued despite attacks, though its scale was decreased, until Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded former al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, launched multiple attacks against a number of vetted rebel groups over the past few weeks. Syria experts cited different reasons behind the jihadist offensives, from ideological struggles between hardliners and pragmatists to a pre-emptive strategy by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to stop rebel-backed offensives.
The major financial difficulties Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is experiencing and the locations targeted also indicate that competition over resources is a significant motive. The freeze in support, therefore, was issued to prevent radicals from confiscating supplies.
Suspending the support, however, seems to guarantee that al-Qaeda will continue to eliminate moderate groups. It also allows al-Qaeda to control key swaths of territory in northern Syria. Radicals will also be used to justify the mass violations committed by the regime and its allies against civilians in Syria. Jihadis would also likely increase their own abuses.
The fight against extremism will be used by the regime as a pretext to prolong the conflict and will hinder the achievement of a fair and widely accepted political settlement in Syria. Additionally, the absence of strong moderate groups will harm the prospects for effective stabilization measures, and for securing a political settlement at the local level.
Over the past six years, the absence of a coherent strategy on Syria from Western governments has contributed to the increasing strength of extremist groups, according to a new Chatham House paper. The paper also shows that the absence of a coherent strategic vision -- or the political will to see it through -- on the part of Western governments has contributed to the increasing influence of radicals in Syria.
The West’s response to the increased growth of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria does not offer achievable strategic goals. The freeze in military aid only deals with how to prevent radicals from capturing external support. It ignores the consequences of the suspension. It also neglects the high risks that come with its demands of its allied rebel groups.
Any merger attempt involving the Free Syrian Army and other pragmatic groups will be immediately perceived by radicals as a threat and trigger a pre-emptive attack. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham systematically attacks any groups it views as a threat. The attack on Jan. 24 against vetted rebels who attended political talks led by Turkey and Russia in Astana, Kazakhstan, is the latest example.
A rebel-led unified anti-radical front could be formed given the right conditions. The West has so far shown neither the support nor the will to do what it takes to create such an alliance. The support channeled through the MOM is limited and insufficient to protect Free Syrian Army groups from the regime or from radicals. The risk of losing external support is thus not quite existential. A greater risk is posed, though, by picking up a battle against jihadis that they are not poised to win.
The West could still turn things around by providing rebel groups with protection and greater support. The rebel backers should explore options to enforce the ongoing fragile cease-fire in Syria. This would reduce rebels’ dependence on radicals in the fight against the Assad regime. Providing rebels with air support against radicals -- similar to that provided for the Kurdish-led forces against ISIS in Syria -- would also increase their chances of successfully defending themselves against jihadists. It would also likely encourage others to join them.
The policy of suspending the West’s military support is too aggressive.The West has to begin looking at the long-term consequences of its freeze in support, which only benefits radicals. A more constructive strategy will be needed in order to address the concerns of the West, as well as to ensure the protection of moderate rebels, who are essential for finding and implementing a political solution to the conflict.