Sleeping in the same bed as the enemy

Sleeping in the same bed as the enemy

Amid the growing collection of world countries embarking on another round of the guessing game over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s remaining days, the outsider-backed rebels conducting an armed struggle against the Damascus regime have been hit by unexpected and “friendly” fire as the United States earlier this week blacklisted one of the factions fighting along with the umbrella group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The notorious Ansar al-Jebhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (Supporters of the Front for Victory of the People of Syria) or simply Jebhat al-Nusra (Support Front) has been labeled by Washington as a “terrorist” organization in an U.S. attempt to sift out “extremist” elements from the “moderate” Syrian armed groups. The irony grew bigger a day later when the meeting of the “Friends of Syria,” a U.S.-led international group bringing together many major world powers supporting the forces fighting against al-Assad, gave the rebels’ political arm full political recognition and gave the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) the title of “legitimate representative” of Syria. Basking in pride with the recent recognition, SNC leader Mouaz al-Khatib criticized the U.S. move to blacklist the al-Nusra Front by saying the group’s religious roots were a source of motivation not only for al-Nusra fighters, but all anti-al-Assad rebels and called on Washington to backpedal on its decision. For his part, the SNC leader was right to be afraid, considering the jihadist al-Nusra’s role in the bloody fight in Syria.

Seen as the main suspect in many deadly attacks in Syria since its recent birth in January 2012, the shadowy al-Nusra Front has clearly been ahead of other rebel groups with its secretive leadership, alleged ties to al-Qaeda, Afghan-mujahedeen-style recruitment, Israeli- and Russian-made weapons, and of course, an infamous armed campaign in Syria.

While the main rebel group FSA was struggling with deep divisions, al-Nusra fighters appeared more organized and centralized on the battlefield since its fighters, many of whom are foreigners, including Iraqis, Palestinians and other Arabs, as well as Central Asians, East Africans and eastern Europeans, have acquired experience during their recent fight against U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq.

The leadership and financial sources of the group are also other sources of mystery. While U.S. intelligence officials pointed out two names despite appearing to have few details, videos supposedly featuring “Syrian” al-Nusra fighters have been made public with another name reportedly having links with the symbolic southwestern Golan region. However, the secretive leader has not showed up until now, instead preferring to reach the group’s supporters with audio messages. Despite having a wraith-like leader, the group seems to be enjoying wide financial support from abroad, based on the sophisticated weapons shown during the videos.

Facing a trap similar to the one it fell into in Afghanistan, where the U.S.-backed mujahedeen later turned its weapons on its main supporter, the U.S. administration wanted to distance itself from a new jihadist enemy, whom it has been fighting against for more than a decade. However, as other world powers are considering backing up rebels with more arms and money, the United States should do much more than just blacklist the al-Nusra Front in the interests of creating a “milder” Syrian armed resistance if it wants to avoid sleeping in the very same bed as the enemy.