Reach Out to Syria's Islamic Front
The military balance in Syria, both between the anti-Assad opposition and the regime as well as amongst various factions of the opposition, has quite predictably and significantly deteriorated. The U.S.-“supported” Free Syrian Army (FSA) is fading into irrelevance; now, the [comparatively] moderate Islamic Front (IF) is essentially the only obstacle preventing more radical, Al Qaeda-affiliated groups – particularly Jabhat al Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shaam (ISIS) – from dominating the opposition and post-Assad Syria – if there ever is a post-Assad Syria.
If nearly half a century of ruthless Baathist rule didn't completely discredit the idea of secular governance in Syria, the FSA's downfall was the nail in secularism's coffin. Now, all options are Islamist, although some, like the Islamic Front, are more moderate than others. Formed in November 2013 with the merger of several powerful Islamist rebel factions, the IF is today one of the most powerful factions of the Syrian opposition, if not the most powerful. Although the IF is not formally linked with Al Qaeda, its members often fight alongside Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.
ISIS and JN are heavily populated by foreign fighters, who often care more about establishing an Islamic emirate within and beyond Syria’s borders than improving the lives of ordinary Syrians. In contrast, the IF is almost entirely composed of Syrians based in areas where they grew up, and has demonstrated a willingness to adjust its goals and practices to maintain popular support.
Indeed, the half-hearted nature of Washington’s support of the FSA is a major cause of the decline of the more moderate and secular component of the Syrian opposition, although not the only one. Related to this enfeeblement of the FSA, more hardline groups were able to attract many recruits that might have otherwise joined FSA ranks, because these groups were generally better-armed than was the FSA and many of their members already gained significant combat experience fighting in Iraq during the U.S. occupation of that country. The FSA also reportedly committed widespread abuses of Syrian citizens in the areas that it ‘liberated’, which greatly reduced support for the group.
The FSA, Washington’s primary Syrian proxy, has proven incapable of deposing Assad. Despite the administration’s public pronouncements to the contrary, it has become increasingly apparent that no serious U.S.-backed effort to unseat Assad is forthcoming, either. President Obama – and, more importantly, the American people – have little desire to devote the substantial time, treasure, and blood that would almost certainly be required to force Assad from office and stabilize Syria. But whether or not Assad goes anytime soon – or ever – a massive Al Qaeda presence across all or part of Syria seriously threatens U.S. regional interests and allies.
Given this stark reality, it would be prudent to consider and pursue next-best options to FSA-induced regime change. In particular, the US and other key outside backers of Syria’s rebels should work to bolster the IF, both in order to limit the influence of ISIS and JN in Syria and to increase pressure on the Assad regime.
Related to this, outside efforts to strengthen the IF vis-à-vis JN and ISIS should, at least for the time being, be oriented toward discouraging further confrontation between the IF on the one hand and the AQ-affiliated groups on the other (fighting has been raging in recent days between the IF and ISIS), which would divert attention and resources from the fight against Assad. While some might find the temptation of pushing the IF to more directly combat the AQ-linked groups difficult to resist, they should for now keep their eyes on the larger goal of unseating Assad – or of at least denying Assad an outright victory anytime soon – and ought to instead seek to weaken ISIS and JN by increasing the appeal and influence of the IF, by providing it with robust lethal and nonlethal assistance.
Whether Assad stays or goes, the IF should be made strong enough to be able to combat the Al Qaeda affiliates effectively; this will be especially critical should Assad fall and Syria’s security apparatus disintegrate, which would leave little or no check on the extremist groups.
While Assad’s external opponents, including the US, should discourage the IF from further confrontation with ISIS or JN, so too should outsiders discourage the IF from becoming closer to the Al Qaeda affiliates. Although, as State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said last month, the US “can engage with the Islamic Front, of course, because they're not designated terrorists", the administration will almost surely be pressured to designate the IF as a terrorist organization if it moves closer to these groups. Such a designation would deprive the US of its last good chance to have meaningful influence with the anti-Assad opposition.
A fundamental ingredient for success in any of these undertakings is for the administration to communicate that it will provide robust and reliable support to the IF – a difficult message to convey after the White House’s abandonment of the FSA. At a minimum, the US should resume supplying the moderate opposition, particularly the IF, with nonlethal aid, which the administration is reportedly now considering.