Will the US stop giving al-Qaida a helping hand?

With Syrian cities suffering from incessant sieges, Islamist groups have found fertile ground to enter the fray.

Al-Qaida-linked group claims border attack 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Al-Qaida-linked group claims border attack 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 basest rules that 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. 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 (SNC), 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 towards 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. At least not until after November, and even then it is uncertain at best.
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 never had to happen.
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 al-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 opposition. 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 Western allies. 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.
That final point is what should concern Washington. There is absolutely an 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 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.The writer is a Policy Analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.