Jihadists alter the Syrian equation

Jihadists alter the Syrian equation

Let’s face it, the war in Syria is no longer about fighting against a brutal dictator for the sake of democracy. It hasn’t been for some time. The war is now over whether Syria will be run according to the Sunni Shariah or remain a secular country even if it not a democratic one. 

Some even argue that it is the existence of the jihadist groups in Syria that provided one of the incentives for Washington and Tehran to start searching for common ground. True or not, it is clear is that Iran is just as concerned about al-Qaida-affiliated groups in Syria as the United States is. In other words, Washington and Tehran have a common enemy in Syria that they would not want to see gaining ground, and whether the do so jointly or separately, they are obviously working to ensure this does not happen.

In many ways, President Bashar al-Assad has already won his war by managing to stay in power against serious odds. He has also managed to utilize the use of chemical weapons – most likely by forces attached to him even if he himself did not order this – to his advantage. It was after these weapons were used in Ghouta near Damascus that the strike by a U.S.-led coalition against his forces, which appeared imminent, was averted and replaced by the Russian-inspired diplomatic effort we see today. 

That effort also enabled the Security Council members to adopt a groundbreaking unanimous resolution on Syria. These developments raise al-Assad to the level of an official interlocutor from his previous status of “pariah” for much of the world, and are therefore not displeasing to him or members of his regime. 

It is clear in retrospect that the arrival of jihadists in Syria who never made their ultimate agendas a secret strengthened al-Assad’s hand, even if these groups appeared to be gaining ground against his forces at times. This was especially so after these groups, beginning with the al-Nusra Front, started to be officially labeled as “terrorist organizations” by the U.S. 

Al-Assad has been claiming, after all, that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is no more than a pack of terrorists, and this move by the U.S. provided him with fresh ammunition in this regard. More importantly, however, the presence of these jihadist groups also prevented the West from sending sophisticated weapons to the FSA. The very real fear was that these weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists who could use them against the West in the future. 

The announcement by these extremist groups that they were uniting under one umbrella, and that they consider the secular elements of the FSA as enemies, was the therefore a boon of sorts for al-Assad. It is not surprising therefore that there are that press reports emerging from the region which indicated that the rise of jihadist groups is forcing moderate and secular elements of the FSA to search for some kind of rapprochement with the regime.

The Independent’s Robert Fisk, for example, reported in an article on Monday that some members of the FSA have formed what they call the “National Union for Saving Syria” whose members are already holding talks with the regime.

“The growth of al-Nusra and other Islamist groups has certainly disillusioned many thousands of FSA men who feel that their own revolution against the government has been stolen from them. And in areas of Homs province, it is a fact that fighting between the FSA and the army has virtually ceased,” Fisk, an old Middle East hand, wrote.

All of this has also put Turkey in a spot, too. Tellingly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, as well as senior civil servants dealing with religious affairs, have started condemning jihadist groups in Syria and elsewhere, especially after the recent attacks in Peshawar and Nairobi.

Put another way, we are at the point where jihadists are proving to be a serious handicap for Islamists. How this effects policy has yet to be seen. What is certain, however, is that Ankara never expected things to come to this point in Syria.