Jihadis may want to kill Assad. But is he lucky to have them?

The most effective forces fighting to topple Syria's Bashar al-Assad are jihadis, some linked to Al Qaeda. They're also a reason he has a shot at winning his war.

George Ourfalian/Reuters
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad carry their weapons as they stand guard in Aleppo's town of Khanasir, after they regained control of the strategic town, October 9, 2013.

Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad has long presented his regime as a beacon of stability and secularism against rebels he insists are foreign-funded Al Qaeda jihadis bent on turning the country into a strict Islamist state.

While that claim was initially not taken seriously outside Syria, now Mr. Assad’s narrative appears to be moving closer to a self-serving reality, in perception at least. A combination of regime resilience bolstered by staunch support from Russia and Iran, international hesitance to provide military assistance to Assad’s opponents, and opposition disarray, is pushing frustrated rebel groups toward the jihadi end of the spectrum, raising alarm in the West that Syria is becoming a haven for Al-Qaeda.

For some European countries whose nationals have flocked to the rebel cause in Syria, the desire to oust a regime regarded as despotic and brutal is now being tempered by fear of blowback when the battle-hardened and radicalized volunteer fighters eventually return home.

“There is a strong element of self-fulfilling prophecy in all this,” says Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East who previously served as the Obama administration’s liaison with the Syrian opposition. “The regime, with Russian help and American self-doubt, has pulled off a manipulative tour de force, one whose undoing would now require Moscow to turn on the client it has just saved and turn [Mr. Assad] out.”

A few weeks ago, the Assad regime was bracing for a punitive campaign of air strikes led by the United States in response to its alleged chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 on several Damascus suburbs, which killed more than 1,000 people. Some rebel groups were planning to use the air strikes to gain military advantage on the ground.

But a last-minute deal between the US and Russia forestalled the air campaign and instead saw Damascus gain a rare moment of legitimacy when it joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and promised to surrender its poison gas arsenal to international inspectors. Syria’s cooperation with the chemical weapons eradication program even earned it nods of approval this week from Secretary of State John Kerry and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has been assigned to destroy the Syrian arsenal by July 1, 2014.

A clamor for help, met by doubts

Since the uprising against the Assad regime turned into an armed conflict two years ago, the opposition has been clamoring for military and financial assistance from the West. The Obama administration, however, harbored strong doubts that arming the rebel factions would achieve a desirable outcome.

“[Obama's] skepticism was not indefensible,” says Mr. Hof. “Yet his decision not to take charge of the process by which Syrian nationalists were armed, equipped, and trained has served only to deepen the foundation of his original skepticism by inadvertently marginalizing moderates to the advantage of Assad’s jihadist enemies of choice, thereby making any lethal assistance plan all the more difficult to implement.”

For many rebels, disheartened by limited support from the West, the postponement last month of the airstrikes against regime assets was the final straw.

“We feel betrayed. We don’t believe anything Obama says anymore,” says Abu Khalil, a Lebanese who has fought with Syrian rebel factions for two years, speaking in the town of Arsal on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. “There is a lot of hatred for America now. Americans are traitors and we don’t trust them.”

Turn to faith

On Sept. 24, 11 top rebel brigades publicly stated they no longer recognized the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition political body, and the affiliated Syrian Military Council (SMC). They also affirmed that they considered Islam the sole source of authority. Three of the factions – Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and the Liwa Suqour al-Sham – were leading brigades in the Free Syrian Army, which is part of the SMC. Also in the group were the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham, a hard-line salafist faction.

Four days later, at least 50 rebel groups operating in the Damascus area merged to form the Army of Islam, further undermining the SMC.

Frustration with Western diffidence is not the only factor strengthening the salafist component of the armed opposition. Liwa al-Tawhid and Liwa al-Islam, both of which followed the more accommodating Muslim Brotherhood ideology, are shifting toward salafism due to the lure of funds – particularly from Saudi Arabia. Qatar reportedly was a chief financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood-oriented rebel factions. But following the change of leadership in Qatar in June, funds from the Gulf state have significantly dwindled. Saudi Arabia, among others, has filled the gap, but its support has a price.

“Liwa al-Islam is technically Free Syrian Army and Muslim Brotherhood, but it has become more salafist and they have grown their beards [longer] now that they are having to rely on Saudi funds after the Qatari funds dried up,” says a European ambassador in Beirut.

Even the Assad regime is believed to have played a role in establishing a hard-line salafist presence within the armed opposition. In May 2011, when the rebellion was in its infancy, the Assad regime granted amnesty to political prisoners, releasing hundreds of them from jail, including members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The newly released Islamists went on to play leading roles in the armed opposition, including helping found Ahrar ash-Sham.

When Jabhat al-Nusra emerged on the scene in January 2012, it was widely dismissed by the Syrian opposition as a creation of Syrian intelligence. Since then, however, Jabhat al-Nusra has become one of the most effective rebel forces and has publicly declared its loyalty to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Support and mirrors

The Syrian regime is nominally secular. But it has a long history of tacit cooperation with militant Islamist groups that on paper it should regard as mortal enemies. Syria served as a conduit for Islamist volunteers from across the Arab world to enter Iraq and join the insurgency after 2003. In 2006, Syria released from prison a Palestinian Islamist militant and veteran of the Iraq insurgency who went to Lebanon, where he founded Fatah al-Islam, an Al Qaeda-inspired group.

The new faction attracted dozens of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian recruits. By the time Fatah al-Islam engaged in a bloody three-month battle with the Lebanese Army in May 2007, it had become a full-blown jihadist group and its Syria-influenced origins had been obscured. The history of Fatah al-Islam is still subject to dispute in Lebanon six years later.

“The [regime] hardliners’ strategy is to let Al Qaeda take over the insurgency," the European ambassador says. “The hardliners around Assad believe that the plan is working beautifully and that they just need to stay the course. ‘Soon the rebels will all be Al-Qaeda and the West will come back to us again.’ ”

A confidential Western diplomatic report seen by the Monitor said that the hardline rebel groups are growing increasingly wary of the West’s unease at their presence in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra even evacuated some of their bases last month, fearing that they could come under attack alongside regime targets had the US launched its air campaign.

“Salafist groups have long expected that they will be exposed to Western-led attacks from the FSA and with drones,” the report says, referring to unmanned aircraft that have been used by the US military to target Al Qaeda militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

US support?

A few FSA rebels are reportedly receiving military training at the hands of the CIA and US special forces in Jordan, but the numbers are limited. Furthermore, to the frustration of FSA commanders, the US is micromanaging some operations undertaken by rebels by providing them with weapons and ammunition to carry out specific missions that tend to target Al Qaeda-affiliated groups rather than forces loyal to the Assad regime, according to diplomatic sources with access to intelligence data.

The continuing radicalization of the armed opposition will also further complicate international efforts to convene a peace conference in Geneva, tentatively scheduled for next month, in which the Assad regime and a representative Syrian opposition participate.

Still, encouraging the emergence of extremist Islamist groups carries the risk of backfiring on the regime as much as it complicates the West’s desire to remove Assad.

“Right now, from a public standpoint, it might seem that it benefits their overall international cause,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But these things can get out of hand particularly because some of these salafist or extremist groups are some of the most effective on the field fighting the Assad regime.”

If the West wishes to check the rebel drift toward jihadis, it must seek ways of winning back factions such as Liwa al-Tawhid that have drawn closer to Jabhat al-Nusra primarily because of disenchantment with the mainstream FSA and Syrian National Coalition and a shortage of funds, analysts say. That will take funding, arms, and training – commodities that the West has shown little inclination to provide.

“I am beginning to think that the regime’s hardliners could win,” says the ambassador, who maintains close contacts with sources inside the Assad regime and opposition forces. “They are turning the opposition into Al Qaeda and we are all playing into it. I hear this from my colleagues. The main fight now is against Al Qaeda, it's not against the regime.”

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