The Obama administration’s designation of a Syrian rebel group as a terrorist organization reflects unease about the factions receiving support from U.S. allies in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The U.S. added one of the more successful anti-Assad military groups, al-Nusra Front, to its list of terrorist organizations Dec. 11, citing the group’s ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. officials worry that the conflict has become a magnet for Islamic militants, and it hasn’t armed rebels out of concern that weapons could fall into fundamentalist hands.
U.S. allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia haven’t hesitated to supply rebels, including militant groups. The U.S. is trying to counter a growing Islamist dynamic in Syria by bolstering the secular opposition, and it’s also sending a message to its allies in this fight, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters yesterday.
Adding al-Nusra Front to the terrorist list was intended to advise “partners who have made choices other than ours in terms of the way they are supporting the opposition” that they should be “vigilant” about whom they back, Nuland said.
“We’re looking to the international community to differentiate; we’re looking to Syrians to differentiate,” Nuland said, between opposition groups that have a democratic Syria in mind and those “al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that have a very, very different vision about how people ought to live.”
The effort may be too late, according to a U.S. defense official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and asked to not be named. A French official told reporters in Paris yesterday that there’s no coordination among allies on the issue of arming Syrian rebels. He said weaponry is arriving in Syria from Qatar via Jordan and Turkey.
Like the U.S., France is reluctant to arm the rebels, the French official said, because it fears that weapons will end up in the hands of militants. He cited arms France sent to Libyan rebels that are now being used by extremists in Mali.
The revolt against Assad began in March 2011 as a secular protest, said David Schenker, head of the Arab Politics Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Recent reports, though, have documented that Islamist rebel groups are now the best armed and most effective, he said in an interview.
“That shouldn’t have been a surprise, because the Saudis love the Salafis,” Schenker said, referring to an ultra- conservative Sunni interpretation of Islam. “The Qataris love the Muslim Brotherhood, and the absence of the United States all but assured there was no discrimination about who was getting the weapons. In fact, there may have been a bias toward Islamists.”
While the U.S. declined to arm the rebels, the Qatari and Saudi governments, as well as individuals in those countries, acted quickly, according to an October report by the Brussels- based International Crisis Group.
“The West’s initial reluctance to act — and enduring reluctance to act decisively — coupled with early willingness of private, wealthy, and for the most part religiously conservative Gulf Arabs to provide funds, bolstered both the Salafis’ coffers and their narrative, in which Europe and the U.S. figure as passive accomplices in the regime’s crimes,” said the report.
The U.S. has tried recently to increase the momentum of the regime’s secular opponents, most prominently with President Barack Obama’s Dec. 11 announcement that the U.S. considers the Syrian Opposition Council the “legitimate” representatives of the Syrian people.
Still, the effort to bolster the secular opposition will be undermined by the lack of unity among allies, said Amr Al-Azm, an associate professor of Middle East history at Shawnee University in Portsmouth, Ohio, and a member of a Syrian opposition group.
Moreover, he said, if the Assad regime doesn’t think the political opposition controls the fighters on the ground, it will have little incentive to negotiate with the Syrian Opposition Council.
“The regime will want to know that the opposition can enforce agreements,” said Al-Azm.