A divorce with al-Nusra will not be easy in Syria

A divorce with al-Nusra will not be easy in Syria

In a fresh attempt to find a remedy to the deeply fractured Syrian rebels in their enduring fight against the regime, the major supporters of the opposition are gathering in Istanbul on April 20 with a heavy agenda that prioritizes a reassurance to separating the growing, alarming “extremist gangrene” from the “preferable, moderate” armed groups.

Western supporters of the Syrian opposition, led by the United States, have long been concerned about the rise of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, the al-Nusra Front, in Syria while the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Muslim side of the anti-regime camp, including Turkey, have tried to avoid criticism over cooperation with Islamists fighters. 

However, now the mood appears to be tilting toward allying the Western worries with the SNC and Turkey backpedalling – at least on paper – from openly supporting al-Nusra fighters. The U-turn is quite impressive for many reasons. It was the SNC and its leader who rushed to criticize Washington, when it labeled al-Nusra “terrorist,” while along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey has also been irked by the U.S. definition but has continued to try and maintain a balancing act, which worked until now but has now failed in the eyes of the U.S.-led Western allies. 

Due to military might – thanks to the Ankara-Riyadh-Doha trio’s support – and well-organized mujahedeen – many of whom were trained in battles against the U.S.-led allies in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Turkey turned a blind eye to al-Nusra, which is largely based right next to its borders, while stalling U.S. concerns. Ankara even frantically tried its chances with Washington by arguing that putting “terror” labels on al-Nusra would actually make the group a focal point for other “extremist and anti-American” groups in Syria, therefore recruiting more fighters for the Islamists. The SNC also followed a similar path by forming a “reluctant alliance” with al-Nusra due to its supremacy in the conflict despite the high risk that the Islamist group would totally absorb all the Syrian armed groups. 

Now a knife-edge strategy of timidly giving al-Nusra a hand in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad has reached a dead end and Ankara – again with silent Riyadh and Qatar – as well as the SNC, have been forced to wash their hands of al-Nusra amid the rising Western pressure. 

Having said that, the divorce with al-Nusra will not be easy since the battle against al-Assad is now effectively organized, carried out and led by the Islamist fighters despite the desperate attempts by the U.S. to boost the influence of the SNC and its “moderate” armed groups fighting under the name of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). 

The FSA leader now says his militants are walking together with al-Nusra fighters and the Western allies are expecting a similar oath from the SNC, but, actually, no vow can make the Syrian conflict even more complicated. By parting ways with al-Nusra, the FSA will not only lose a powerful ally but basically open a new front in which it will have to fight against the Islamists and al-Assad. Looking from where we are now, it is a fight the SNC, for sure, will lose. Perhaps not for Riyadh and Doha, which might continue their unspoken support to the Islamists while still not publicizing it, but for Turkey, the divorce also spells trouble since the widening rift within the rebels will eventually buy more and more time for al-Assad while also opening deeper security holes on its borders.

No one asks – in fact minds – or knows what the al-Nusra leadership will choose as a next step after being isolated, but it is not hard to forecast that the group will become more “radicalized” and will perhaps turn its guns not only on regime forces, but also on its erstwhile allies.