US Supporting Extremists in Syria Is a Huge Strategic Mistake

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hassan Ahmadian
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Tehran and Expert on Middle East Issues

Three years have passed since the ongoing crisis began in Syria. During this period, most regional and international players have taken their own special positions on the developments in this Arab country as well as on active players involved in those developments. However, this is not true about the United States’ position on Syria. In fact, an accurate analysis of the United States role in and stance on the Syria crisis has been hampered by ambiguities which mostly arise from conflicting positions that American officials have taken on Syria crisis. Nonetheless, since the beginning of the crisis, the White House has persistently announced that [the incumbent Syrian President Bashar] Assad cannot play a role in future Syria. This position has practically put the United States on the same side as the mainstream Syrian opposition groups. Of course, it is widely believed that Washington is actually lending its support to more democratic and liberal portions of the Syria opposition. However, what has increased ambiguity with regard to the United States’ true position on Syria was reports about meetings and negotiations between American officials and members of the Syrian Islamic Front (or Al-Jabha Al-Islamiyya Al-Suriyya), which is a coalition of various Islamist groups fighting in Syria. The question, therefore, is why the United States is showing its good face to this Islamist group after it has practically suspended sending aid to the Free Syrian Army?

To recap the goals that the United States has been following through its diverse positions on Syria crisis, we can highlight three instances: 1) to control or totally destroy the stockpile of Syria’s chemical weapons; 2) to prevent the crisis in Syria from spilling over into the neighboring countries; and finally 3) to rein in all radical groups affiliated with the terrorist Al-Qaeda group that are currently fighting in Syria. The first goal has been already achieved through an agreement reached [between the United States and Russia] for the annihilation of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks. The second goal has been also largely achieved despite the escalation of insecurity in Iraq and Lebanon. The third goal, however, has not been achieved yet. Despite the fact that the Western states have been mostly lending their support to more moderate parts of the Syria opposition, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant (Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham Al Islami), namely, three main Salafi and Takfiri groups fighting in Syria, have become more powerful during the past few years. This reality, added to the existing ambiguities with regard to the United States approach to Syria, have given birth a major viewpoint in the Middle East. According to this viewpoint, the United States is actually using Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups as a tool and when it comes to Syria, the White House has been actually trying to boost the power of these groups in order to justify its intervention in Syria affairs.

Fostering sectarian divisions is the most prominent feature of the new wave of radicalism which has been launched by the extremist groups in Syria. These groups are using sectarian division and intensification of tensions between Sunnis and Shias in their new discourse in order to draw support from the ordinary citizens of the regional Arab countries. This is aimed to make up for the distance that had been already created between those citizens and radical groups following the catastrophic aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. In this way, promotion of a sectarian discourse has helped radical groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda to survive and even try to recruit new members on a large scale. The sectarian discourse of these groups is especially focused on Iran and the Shia populations in the region. However, the question is will the damages resulting from this state of affairs remain limited to Iran and Shias? In fact, this is just a tactic which is aimed at giving a new life to these groups and recruit new members for them. In the long run, like it happened in the past, the present exigencies will gradually lose importance and the West will once more become their main target.

As a result of the above facts, the renewed empowerment of Al-Qaeda in the region is sure to pose new serious strategic threats to all regional countries as well as the Western states. In addition, it is possible for these groups to grasp the power in Syria once [the country’s President] Assad has fallen. Such a turn of events will make it easy for them to lay their hands on long-range weaponry and even get control of the country’s weapons of mass destruction and this is quite a possibility which should be taken into consideration. (The seasoned American journalist, Seymour Hersh, recently wrote a column noting that the Al-Nusra Front has been already able to make and use sarin gas.) In that case, apart from a huge wave of massacre which will probably engulf Syria and other regional countries on the basis of purely sectarian motivations, the possibility that the Western states may become directly or indirectly their next targets would appear a totally serious option.

At present, the radical Islamist groups have proven to be more efficient than moderate opposition groups in Syria. In addition to fighting against Assad government forces, they also engage in armed conflicts with non-Islamist part of Syria opposition. In some instances, they have been even able to take certain parts of the country out of the hands of the moderate opposition groups through bloody conflicts. Even during the period in which they had joined hands with other groups in fighting the Syrian government, the extremist groups proved that they would not reach a tactical agreement with the moderate opposition groups. Therefore, in parallel to fighting government forces, they started to fight moderate groups as well. Naturally, these groups with such petrified way of thinking cannot be expected to care about the rights of other people, especially the rights of minorities and women, as well as political freedoms, once they have taken control of the country. In addition, under their command and control, Syria will turn into a huge base for extremist groups and in view of the fighting experience that they have gained in this country, at least part of them, will take their terrorist activities beyond Syrian borders, including into the Western countries.

It seems that the United States has started negotiations with the Syrian Islamic Front (Al-Jabha Al-Islamiyya Al-Suriyya) with the above facts in mind and may probably offer its support to them. It can be inferred that after witnessing the growing weakness of the moderate opposition groups in Syria in their faceoff with the radical groups, the United States has chosen to support the Syrian Islamic Front as a means of suppressing other radical groups (in spite of the fact that they are not very different in nature). The role played by Saudi Arabia should not be ignored in this regard. It is true that the Syrian Islamic Front came into being through the all-out support of Saudi Arabia. Since Saudi Arabian government sought to weaken the rival Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated groups across the region, including in Syria, it came to the conclusion that the best way to do this was to establish an overarching Islamist front. Riyadh believed that such a front would be able to gain domestic and foreign legitimacy in and out of Syria by fighting some of the most radical groups that are present in the Arab country. On the other hand, it promised high practical potential for marginalizing the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Syrian Army while fighting the Syrian government at the same time as a result of the extensive and growing power that alliance with similar groups would give it. All these factors were seen as positive factors helping Saudi Arabia to achieve its goals in Syria.

But is it logical to assume that the goals that the United States is currently pursuing in Syria totally conform to Saudi Arabia’s goals in that country? If one could rely on the available reports to assume that the United States is serious in its decision to support the Syrian Islamic Front, in that case, it would follow that from the viewpoint of Washington, supporting this front is a means of weakening other, more radical, opposition groups in Syria, most notably the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Al-Nusra Front. But, is the Syrian Islamic Front really more moderate than the other two groups? It should be noted that many groups that have so far formed an alliance with this front are, by nature and even in practice, not very different from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Al-Nusra Front. On the contrary, many of them, including the Free Men of the Levant (Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham Al Islami) have been engaged in terrorist actions comparable to the two aforesaid groups. Therefore, the difficult question that arises here is why the United States has entered into talks with this front? By supporting the Syrian Islamic Front – which is not actually very different from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Al-Nusra Front and has only adopted outwardly different positions as a tactic – the United States is making a huge strategic mistake. This is true because the prevalence of the Syrian Islamic Front over other opposition groups in Syria will not lead to considerable change in Syria along the line of the Western states’ interests. It will only help Saudi Arabia to marginalize the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, as the most important supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.

In fact, to support the radical fighters of this front will be the repetition of a mistake that the West made in Afghanistan during the 1980s. During that period, the Western countries supported radical currents that enjoyed the support of Saudi Arabia as well. Although this issue was beneficial to Western countries during the Afghan war [against the former Soviet Union], its medium- and long-term outcome for the West was totally reverse. To follow suit with Saudi Arabia’s plan in the present-day Syria cannot lead to a better result. In fact, by supporting radical groups, which have temporarily given up their conflict with the West as a tactic and are currently focusing on a sectarian discourse, the United States cannot expect to gain any positive result in the long run. Let’s hope that no practical support would be offered to the Syrian Islamic Front and other radical groups in Syria. Otherwise, we should expect intensification of tensions in Syria and further difficulty in achieving a political solution for the crisis in this country in the short run. In the long run, however, the main expectation would be a change in the direction of terrorist activities of such groups from Syria toward the Western countries.

Key Words: US, Extremists, Syria, Strategic Mistake, Syrian Islamic Front, Al-Nusra Front, Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant, Al-Qaeda, Ahmadian

More By Hassan Ahmadian:

*Containing Syria or Iran: What is Obama doing?:

*Militarism in Egypt: The Best Way Out:

*Iran's Relations with Saudi Arabia during Rouhani’s Tenure:

*Photo Credit: ALALAM & ABC News Radio

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