March 31, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Bin Ladinism vs. Assad in Syria

• The seizure of Idlib, Syria on March 27 by a newly formed coalition led by al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate makes it ever clearer that the conflict in Syria has devolved into two camps: extremist followers of the violent ideology of bin Ladinism and supporters of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad

• The rebel coalition, led by al-Nusra Front with its effective fighting force and recently seized advanced weaponry and Jaysh al-Fatah, a group divided amongst itself between various shades of Islamist factions that include groups like Ahrar al-Sham, accomplished in several days what rebel groups had been unable to do for four years: take effective control of the provincial capital of Idlib

• The loss of Idlib is a significant setback for the Assad regime, which conceded the provincial capital of Raqqa in 2013 to the Islamic State; with the regime in Damascus, there are now three extremist capitals in one broken country

• As success begets success, al-Nusra will attract more groups and supporters who believe it is the only realistic chance of toppling Assad, rallying more to its extremist ranks even if only out of necessity.


Syria might be nearing the tragic distinction of having three capital cities run by three extremely violent groups: Damascus, province of the Assad regime; Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State; and Idlib, the northeastern provincial capital recently seized by a coalition group led by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. It is as undeniable as it is worrisome that the most significant victories over the Assad regime have come at the hands of groups carrying the black banners of bin Ladinism.

Rebel Syrian opposition groups, desperate for any momentum against the Assad regime have long coordinated with al-Nusra, even as al-Nusra has periodically absorbed or destroyed various rebel groups like the now-defunct Harakat Hazm or Syrian Revolutionary Front led by Jamal Ma’rouf. Now that al-Nusra has achieved such a symbolic and significant victory, more will ignore the extremist ideology of the group in order to benefit from its fighting ability. The problem with this understandable but lamentable tactic is just that: it is a tactic and not a strategic move that paves the way for a stable and non-extremist future Syria. Efforts to harness violent extremists with the hope of either moderating or marginalizing them have historically failed; Afghanistan and Iraq are just two recent examples.

The situation in Syria now presents the perfect straw-man argument that is somehow true and false at the same time: if you oppose Assad, you therefore must support the extremists; if you oppose the extremists, you must support Assad. The Assad regime strongly encourages this argument; only against the brutalities of the Islamic State and al-Nusra does the barrel-bombing regime look acceptable. By stressing the “me or the extremists” argument, Assad hopes to create enough fear and fatigue among the international community that the regime appears to be the best choice, even after brutally killing so many of Syria's citizens. The reality is obviously much more complicated. However, as the situation in Syria continues to devolve into a fight between bin Ladinism and Assad,  everyone loses.

The problem remains that there are no realistic solutions to the conflict, given not just the current situation inside Syria but also the gamesmanship played outside of Syria. Russia continues to provide weapons and support to Assad, while Hizballah and Iran continue to provide fighters and advisers, respectively. Turkey wants to remove the immediate threat of Assad more than it wants to eliminate future threats like the Islamic State and al-Nusra. Neither Assad nor al-Nusra, which has also seized heavy weapons like TOW missiles from the Western-backed rebel groups it overran, are suffering from a shortage of weapons or fighters. The rebel groups trust Assad slightly less than they trust the West. The Islamic State is faring much worse as the target of coalition airstrikes, but it’s not going to be pushed out of Raqqa in the near future. In between these three violent forces is precious little room for moderation. The current plan to introduce vetted and trained forces that resist the ideology of bin Ladinism and fight both the Islamic State and Assad will require more time to implement than Syria likely has. Ensuring that al-Nusra—and to a lesser degree, the Islamic State—doesn’t become the only option other than Assad is as important to achieve as it is difficult. This has been the issue with Syria since the extremists subsumed the moderates, leaving fewer and fewer viable alternatives. The black flags of bin Ladinism—be it al-Nusra or the Islamic State—or the flag of the Assad regime is a suicidal choice for all involved, demanding a renewed effort with a new approach.


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