An Argument for Containment

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Obama administration has recently adopted a discernibly more aggressive Syria policy. Its support of the rebels stands at approximately $385 million in humanitarian assistance and $115 in non-lethal aid; more is expected. But is this (and related efforts on behalf of allies in the region) sufficient to prevent Jabhat al-Nusra from undermining the rebels who seek to topple President Bashar al-Assad and establish a moderate Sunni government?

Since forming in January 2012, Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for hundreds of attacks. Though only around 9 percent of the rebels in Syria, it is considered to be particularly effective on the battlefield, attracting seasoned fighters from other Middle East battlefields. Jahbat al-Nusra is well funded and has an ample supply of arms.

In December 2012, the U.S. State Department designated the group a surrogate for Al Qaeda in Iraq and placed it on its list of foreign terrorist organizations. Recognition was granted to the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a newly formed umbrella organization for the majority of rebels.

In Aleppo, among other cities, Jahbat al-Nusra has turned its military victories into acceptance by civilians. By helping to provide flour to the needy, and by encouraging factories to reopen, the group is taming some Sunni moderates who dislike the Sharia courts it is installing.

If the U.S. does not provide arms to the national rebel organization, it may find itself inadvertently standing by as Islamists take a page from Hezbollah in Lebanon, transforming a terrorist organization into a societal arbiter that becomes a leading political force.