Will the US stop helping al-Qaida in Syria?
By empowering legitimate groups with the firepower to achieve results, Obama could have removed the space for al-Qaida to operate.
Syria's Assad speaks in Damascus, January 6, 2013 Photo: Sana Sana/Reuters
One of the oldest maxims in history is “The enemy of my enemy is my
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.
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.
While Libyan entreaties
were rewarded with the strong support of Western military forces, less
substantive pleas from Syria have fallen on deaf ears.
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
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
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
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
It is frustrating and worrying – it also didn’t have to
Al-Qaida and its allies have triumphed precisely because of a
lack of foreign intervention and support, not in spite of it. When the FSA was
first formed in the summer of 2011 under the leadership of Riad Assad it was
made up of relatively moderate officers and supported by an average
cross-section of Syrian society.
Had the United States chosen to
intervene then, by creating an intelligence network (which many have intimated
still does not exist) and controlling the arms conduits to Syrian groups, it
would have been in a position to choose the “winners” of the Syrian
BY EMPOWERING legitimate or moderate groups and organizations
with the firepower to achieve results, it would have removed the space for
al-Qaida to operate. Instead, by holding back the flow of arms and support, the
United States created the environment for al-Qaida to flourish.
It is a
recurring theme in recent history. While the Libyan Civil War was raging
observers and insiders noted the increased presence of Islamist groups,
potentially even al-Qaida, among the opposition. This was cited as part of the
reason why intervention should be avoided.
However once intervention
commenced it reduced the need for the opposition to rely on al- Qaida
volunteers, and gave them a reason to make themselves more amenable to their new
However, many conflicts go the route of Chechnya, with
resolution taking so long that radical groups find a permanent presence,
eventually supplanting or absorbing the original opposition.
point is what should concern Washington.
There is a definite expiration
date on involvement. The longer the US waits, the more popular and powerful
alternatives like al- Qaida will become. At some point, as this conflict rages
on they will become a permanent fixture in the political mix, and perhaps even
become the resistance itself.
Many now agree that Bashar Assad is likely
to fall, one way or another. Whether or not it is the Syrian tricolor or the
black flag of al-Qaida that is rung up in Damascus, is in fact entirely up to
the United States.
Joshua Jacobs is a policy analyst at the Institute for