The United States is expected to officially recognize a new Syrian rebel coalition this week in” a further attempt to bolster moderates and marginalize extremists in the opposition.”
But rebel activists in Syria are opposing a move by the United States to designate the radical Islamist al-Nusra Front as a terrorist entity linked to al Qaeda.
“All rebels are fighting to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and before we designate anybody or accuse anyone of being a terrorist we should tell what they have done to terrorize others,” the Free Syrian Army military command’s Brigadier General Salim Idris, told al-Jazeera television. “Not everyone wearing a beard is an extremist.”
Externally-based activists also criticized the move.
“Many groups labeled by the administration as al Qaeda are actually not,” said Radwan Ziadeh (left), the executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “What is the reason the U.S. administration is considering it [Nusra] al Qaeda? All of our focus is on getting rid of the Assad mafia. We welcome anyone in the fight against Assad.”
“The Obama administration is taking a calculated risk that embracing chosen leaders of Syria’s fragmented rebels will speed the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, moving this week to recognize a slate of opposition figures whose pledges of democracy Washington can do little to enforce,” The Washington Post reports
The action is part of fast-moving diplomacy to try to guard against chaos and collapse in Syria if rebel forces succeed in ousting or killing Assad. International efforts to support moderates as successors to Assad have taken on new urgency as rebels gain ground militarily.
“The United States decided to single out the Nusra Front because of their recent rejection to the political opposition front and (because) they have a different approach to post-Assad’s Syria,” Rami Abdelrahman, an official with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told CNN.
Some analysts believe the move to embrace the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (right) has come too late to affect the political dynamics within the opposition.
“People don’t really care how it happens, but they just want to be done with the regime,” said Aaron Zelin, who researches the Nusra Front and other Syrian militant groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Once that happens, the policy may be more effective because the goals of the different factions won’t be in line and there will be fissures between the secular and more moderate groups, and the Islamists.”
Other observers believe that “blacklisting the Nusra Front could backfire” and feed conspiracy theories about US intentions:
It would pit the United States against some of the best fighters in the insurgency that it aims to support. While some Syrian rebels fear the group’s growing power, others work closely with it and admire it — or, at least, its military achievements — and are loath to end their cooperation.
Leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit rebel umbrella group that the United States seeks to bolster, expressed exasperation that the United States, which has refused to provide weapons throughout the conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people, is now opposing a group they see as a vital ally.
The Nusra Front “defends civilians in Syria, whereas America didn’t do anything,” said Mosaab Abu Qatada, a rebel spokesman. “They stand by and watch; they look at the blood and the crimes and brag. Then they say that Nusra Front are terrorists.”
He added, “America just wants a pretext to intervene in Syrian affairs after the revolution.”
“It’s being seen as something where the U.S. is more concerned with counter-terrorism issues than the plight of the Syrian people,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“On Facebook, on blogs, people are very angry.”
The new opposition coalition is expected to improve relations and communications between exiled political figures and rebel combatants within Syria.
“They are trying to build a leadership of credible ground forces, and I think that is a huge distinction,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, an expert on the Syrian rebel groups at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “A lot of the people who are part of the new military leadership are influential and important leaders on the ground.”
But the US initiative to embrace the National Council is unlikely to resolve sectarian tensions within the opposition.
“Some leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army complained that they were not included in the new grouping, reports suggest, “which they charged was dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and would divide rather than unify the rebel fighters.”
Many analysts express concern that funding for radical Islamist groups from the Gulf may have shifted the balance power against democratic and moderate forces.
“The scariest thing about Syria, from the West’s point of view, may be the gap between the hair-raising scenarios senior officials are discussing about what may happen next and their limp strategies for preventing it,” writes analyst Jackson Diehl:
Inside the Obama administration, Syria is now likened by some to a second Somalia — only at the heart of the Middle East, and with the world’s third-largest stockpile of chemical weapons. … The United States and France, along with a few Arab and European allies..are hoping to bolster the opposition political coalition they strung together last month, known as the Syrian National Coalition.
The coalition is getting money from France and a couple of other governments, but the State Department’s lawyers have ruled that the United States cannot directly fund rebel organizations. Al-Qaeda’s units are meanwhile flush with contributions from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
Prominent voices in favor of a more forceful US and Western intervention include former State Department policy planning chief Anne-Marie Slaughter, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
“The longer the Syrian civil war drags on, the more likely it becomes that Mr Assad’s departure will only open a wider, more sectarian, civil conflict with unsettling ramifications for several neighboring states,” says James Dobbins, director of the Rand Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy Center.
But any decision to intervene must pass three tests, he suggests. “First, is such an intervention morally and legally justified? Second, is it militarily and politically feasible? Third, would it significantly advance an acceptable resolution to the conflict?”
The moral case is perhaps the most straightforward. In Syria, as in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya before, a national uprising is seeking to overthrow a long-running dictatorship. In response, the regime is using extreme violence to hang on to power. ….
There are several possible legal bases for a military intervention. The most clear cut, if least likely at the moment given Russia’s position, would be a UN Security Council resolution. Western powers may alternatively recognise an insurgent authority as the legitimate government of Syria, and then respond positively to a request for assistance from it..
The most feasible and efficacious external intervention would be one designed to prevent Mr Assad from bombing his own cities. … Depriving the regime of its air force would significantly alter the military balance on the ground and expedite a rebel victory – one which is likely to emerge eventually, but may otherwise be a long time coming.
The political prerequisites for such an attack are, first, a clear request for such by the Syrian rebel authorities; second, an endorsement by most if not all of the Arab League; third, leadership by regional states, .. and finally, the participation in the operation by Nato allies, even if the bulk of the assets are to be supplied by the US.
“Expediting the fall of the Assad regime is not a sufficient condition for bringing an end to Syria’s civil war, but it is a necessary one,” argues Dobbins, , a former US assistant Secretary of State.
“The longer this war drags on, the more radicalized become the insurgents, the more brutalized the population, the more inflamed the sectarian passions, and the more destabilized neighboring societies. The post-Assad situation will be truly messy, but the longer his fall is delayed the more unmanageable its aftermath will become,”