There have been persistent rumors that Jabhat al-Nusra, among the most effective militias fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime, is linked to Al Qaeda. That connection has now been confirmed. The head of al-Nusra’s Syrian branch, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, has declared his organization’s “allegiance” to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s leader.
Al Nusra is not the only radical Islamist group seeking to topple Assad. Less well known, but perhaps more potent, is the Kataib Ahrar al-Sham, which at the end of last year increased its influence by creating a coalition containing several kindred groups.
This doesn’t mean that the entire armed opposition in Syria consists of radical Islamists, let alone followers of Osama bin Laden’s ideological line. Assad’s foes are a varied, indeed fragmented, lot. The divisions among them have persisted despite, and sometimes because of, the efforts of their Western, Turkish and Arab supporters to create unity. One of the reasons this horrific war drags on without an end in sight is that Assad is not facing a cohesive adversary. Yes, the Syrian opposition is outgunned, but military weakness is by no means its only problem.
Although the armed resistance has persisted despite the shortage of basic supplies, immense hardships and heavy losses, the coordination among the various groups that constitute it remains patchy. The loyalty of fighters to individual commanders or to localities has hampered coordination among the many militias as well as agreement on the basics of a post-Assad polity. The countries supporting the anti-Assad forces helped forge a National Council of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in November 2012, and it adopted a set of common principles. But the reality is that the divisions within it remain and run deep.
The Syrian opposition’s external supporters are also not likeminded. The United States has been providing the anti-Assad forces with nonmilitary supplies and training them from Jordan. Given Assad’s resilience, the Obama administration is now said to be considering an expansion of the scope of its aid. But there’s no sign that the president is willing to provide substantial amounts of military equipment to level the Syrian killing field, let alone establish a no-fly zone or send troops or advisers into the battle zones.
Britain and France are pushing to end, rather than extend, the European Union’s arms embargo when it comes up for renewal in May, but other EU members, notably Germany, don’t share their view. Al-Nusra’s public declaration of fealty to Al Qaeda will deepen the EU’s divisions on Syria and also make Obama even leerier about arming anti-Assad fighters.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf monarchies may be pleased to see a militant Sunni Muslim (and anti-Iranian) leadership emerge in Damascus. But there’s no reason the West should be; and this is certainly not a dénouement Israel desires.
Yet unless the Syrian resistance acquires the wherewithal to fight more effectively—by obtaining such items as surface-to-air and antitank missiles—it cannot prevail in what remains a seesaw struggle. The Assad regime’s foundation has cracked, but it has not crumbled, perennial predictions to the contrary notwithstanding. Advocates of arming the opposition claim that those receiving weapons can be vetted to ensure that only “moderates” benefit. That’s a nice idea in theory, but once the arms start flowing it’s going to be tough to track them, given the complexity of Syria’s political and military landscape and the fluidity of the alignments among the multitude of militias. Nor does the historical record warrant confidence about the suppliers’ ability to control the destination of the arms they provide to the insurgencies they embrace.