The United States should fully support the secular opposition to Bashar al-Assad through the provision of funds, weapons, equipment, and training. Syria has long been a major state-sponsor and supporter of terrorist groups including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and al Qaeda in Iraq. Assad’s regime is Iran’s principal ally in the Levant and, as Iranian leaders often note, effectively gives Iran a border with Israel. Assad has amassed with Iranian help a large stockpile of chemical weapons intended to deter and also to threaten Israel. It is possible that he has already started to use those weapons against his own people. The security of the United States and its allies would be significantly enhanced if Assad fell and Iranian influence over Syria were removed—unless, of course, his regime is replaced by one affiliated with al Qaeda.
American policy-makers have withheld arms and materiel support from the armed opposition hitherto for fear of inadvertently arming al Qaeda in Iraq’s front-group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. Other states have not been so fastidious, however. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have until recently sent significant resources to the armed opposition preferentially to Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafist groups. Consequently Jabhat al-Nusra has become the best-armed force among the opposition groups. It has been at the tip of the spear in operations in Eastern Syria, Aleppo, and Damascus. Its combat proficiency and relatively greater access to materiel and funding have led other opposition groups to tolerate its participation in military operations across the country. This cooperation has been transactional and not always entirely voluntary, since the bulk of the armed opposition rejects al Qaeda’s global jihadist view and much of the Salafist ideology as well. America’s failure to support the moderate opposition has thus resulted in precisely the outcome policy-makers sought to avoid: the radicalization of the opposition and the empowerment of an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
All is not yet lost, however. The relationships between opposition groups and Jabhat al-Nusra remain transactional. Even Salafist armed groups have fought with Jabhat al-Nusra over resources and control of territory, and have articulated their desire in Jihadist forums for a national rather than a global political structure in Syria. The Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army, the leadership body of the armed opposition, supports a democratic process in Syria and sees itself as the seed of a defense ministry. That command does not include participants from Jabhat al-Nusra, although it is relatively inclusive of other fighting groups and important opposition leaders living in exile, giving it credibility and the ability to influence them. The Supreme Military Command’s leadership is active. Armed groups respond to its direction. Its influence could grow significantly if it had more resources to offer the many groups looking for help to fight the increasingly vicious attempts at oppression by Assad’s armed forces and the militias he has raised with Iranian help. Syria analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy writes in her recent report, The Free Syrian Army, “The ability to provide resources and material support to its sub-units is the determining factor in whether or not the SMC will be able to unite rebel forces under its command and establish a level of command and control.” America’s interests lie unequivocally with increasing the influence of the SMC at the expense of Jabhat al-Nusra, particularly if we want to see the emergence of a re-unified, representative and relatively secular Syrian state.
The Free Syrian Army and its political counterpart, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, have repeatedly asked the United States for assistance with procuring advanced weaponry suited to combating the regime. The White House has resisted so far. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in February that the United States would provide the Free Syrian Army with humanitarian aid, medical assistance, and training, a major shift in the hands-off American foreign policy. The United States is considering whether to provide body armor, night vision goggles, and other non-lethal military equipment. The American refusal to proffer lethal aid serves only to undermine the credibility of the United States with the opposition, while strengthening the hand of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And the need for humanitarian aid flowing through moderate umbrella groups will increase as the Syrian opposition gains control of terrain and attempts to govern it. The United States must embrace the Syrian opposition fully in order to strengthen its moderate elements, convert the networks of opposition groups into a functioning hierarchy that can govern the country, and ensure that a moderate, representative state friendly to the United States emerges in the wake of Assad.