West Sees Syria’s Islamists as Too Powerful to Ignore

Western backers of the Syrian rebellion can no longer ignore Islamist opposition forces.

The Syrian capital of Damascus at night, September 20, 2009
The Syrian capital of Damascus at night, September 20, 2009 (Lazhar Neftien)

Eighteen months ago, when the supporters and opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime met in Geneva, Switzerland to negotiate a common policy on Syria, the civil war in that country was starting to intensify in lethality and geographic scope. China, European countries, Russia, the United States and Syria’s neighbors all understood that the war was going to get worse. And their predictions came true: over the next two months, Syria experienced the most destructive days of the conflict during that time.

Yet just as the war was raging and spreading to new areas of the country, the civil war in Syria was at least relatively uncomplicated in terms of who was fighting. Assad, financed and armed by Iran and Russia, was on one side of the dispute. A fractious but seemingly pro-democratic opposition was assumed to be on the other — men who had either taken up arms in defense of their communities or deserted their posts in the Syrian army and switched sides.

One a half year later, the conflict in Syria is far deadlier and more complicated with few areas still spared from the violence. The alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime almost pushed the United States to intervene militarily. The manpower and considerable resources of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement have been devoted to the defense of his government, resulting in a string of military victories of loyalist forces in the west of the country and near Aleppo, the second biggest city.

For the Syrian opposition’s sympathizers abroad, the most worrying development has been the proliferation and expanding power of Islamist battalions, groups that boast a conservative estimate of tens of thousands of fighters who are just as committed to establishing an Islamic state in Syria as they are to overthrowing Assad.

Arab and European countries and the United States tried to mitigate the influence of these Islamist brigades by boosting the visibility of the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army. In December 2012, with American and European support, fighters under the Free Syrian Army umbrella or close to it came together and established a Supreme Military Command. In theory, the organization was supposed to provide a traditional chain of command that Western powers could use to better funnel humanitarian assistance and lethal support. The internal fractures within the broad coalition, however, proved difficult to manage.

The result has been nothing short of a Islamist resurgence in Syria. As of this month, intelligence assessments say the Islamists control the majority of anti-Assad forces, some of which include two highly radical but effective branches linked to Al Qaeda. Given the current trajectory of the war, the share of Islamist fighters is only likely to go up further.

Despite significant wariness in the United States about the presence of these groups, the Obama Administration feels compelled to once again change its Syria policy. Rather than ignoring or marginalizing the anti-Assad Islamists on the battlefield, America and its allies Britain, France and Saudi Arabia are reaching out to them in order to gauge the their objectives. According to The Wall Street Journal, Western envoys have already met directly with representatives of these Islamist groups in Turkey.

The latest overture toward the Islamist battalions will no doubt further upset a Supreme Military Council that is already livid about America’s decision to hold off on bombing Assad’s military bases in retaliation for his use of chemical weapons. American lawmakers, too, can be expected to be critical of reaching out to groups that are seen as anti-Western.

Whether the administration succeeds in its goal of convincing the Islamists to participate in a peace conference is hard to predict. But whatever they choose to do, the fact that the states that oppose Assad are relegated to holding talks with them is an indication of just how powerful they have become.

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