The message received at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia on Sunday was depressing: Forces from the Nusra Front had routed two other militias, Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, to take over the Syrian town of Jabal al-Zawiya, in Idlib province. These two militias are U.S. protégés – armed, trained and funded by the CIA. The fleeing militiamen abandoned their U.S.-supplied arms and other military gear, and the Nusra Front picked up the spoils.
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The Nusra Front is affiliated with Al-Qaida and officially listed as a terrorist organization by Washington. But unlike the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), Nusra enjoys the support of Syrian civilians in the areas it controls, especially since these areas have been attacked by U.S. warplanes. In Syria, Washington can easily discern a development that is familiar to it from Iraq and Afghanistan: The moment U.S. planes attack, America is seen as an enemy.
But Jabal al-Zawiya is just one of many loci of fighting in Syria that are currently causing the map of territory controlled by the approximately 1,000 rebel militias to shift like a kaleidoscope. The Western-backed Free Syrian Army is thought to control no more than 2 percent of the country. Another 45 percent is controlled by the Syrian regime, and the rest is divided among the Kurds in the north, the Islamic State in the northeast and Nusra and its ilk everywhere else.
Washington has long since understood that the FSA alone – even in cooperation with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Islamic Front, both of which are comprised of several allied militias – can’t win the war in Syria. The $500 million Congress approved to expand training for these militias is a drop in the ocean. Moreover, weeks are likely to pass before the training even begins, and months before its effects begin to be felt.
But the inadequate arms supply isn’t the only source of tension between the FSA and the United States. When America recently focused its airstrikes on the Kurdish town of Kobani, the FSA unsuccessfully urged it to attack near Aleppo as well, for fear the Islamic State would try to capture the city. And when America asked the FSA to aid the battle in Kobani, it refused, saying its forces were already stretched too thin and it preferred to defend Aleppo.
Aleppo Province is crucial to both the regime, which controls part of it, and the rebels. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is now trying to broker a cease-fire there, but the effort seems likely to fail, just as previous cease-fire efforts have.
Meanwhile, Russia is trying to advance a political dialogue between the regime and the rebels. According to Syrian reports, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who met recently in Beijing, agreed that this dialogue should also include opposition groups active inside Syria. This is a new American position which indicates that Washington no longer sees the Syrian National Coalition – the largest opposition group operating outside of Syria – as the rebels’ sole representative.
This turnabout in Washington’s position is likely to award representative status to groups within Syria that are willing to dialogue with the regime – and not only to them. The SNC’s former leader, Moaz al-Khatib, who once conditioned any national dialogue on the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is now willing to sit alongside regime representatives at the conference Russia is planning. His new precondition is that the regime release some 160,000 prisoners and detainees, and renew the passports of Syrian exiles. The regime is also apparently willing to send representatives to the conference, who date hasn’t yet been set.
The details of the Russian initiative haven’t been finalized, but it will apparently recycle Russia’s proposals from two earlier international conferences in Geneva, both of which ended without results. These proposals call for setting up a transitional government, holding new presidential elections, and forming a new government that includes representatives from “all” opposition factions. In other words, the role of the Western-backed opposition would be diluted.
Officially, Washington continues to declare that Assad has “lost his legitimacy” and therefore doesn’t deserve to remain president. But recognition of the fact that the Syrian opposition isn’t capable of nominating a suitable candidate – and, more importantly, isn’t capable of winning the war, either – may prompt a turnabout on the question of Assad’s legitimacy as well, should the opposition within Syria decide not to oppose his continued tenure, at least during the transitional period.
The existence of this possibility also stems from the strategic shake-up caused by the Islamic State, which is now defined as the principal, if not only target against which America is prepare to use military force. Even the airstrikes on Syrian oil facilities in the Raqqa region that had been captured by the Islamic State weren’t viewed as attacks on the Syrian regime per se, rather as part of the battle to block the Islamist organization’s sources of funding. That’s also why Russia and Iran have maintained diplomatic radio silence in the face of these attacks. Had similar strikes been carried out before the Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, they might have sparked a Russian or Iranian military response.
Thus so far, the battle against the Islamic State is being perceived as a battle to save Iraq, even though the extremist group poses no less of a threat to Syria. This view turns the diplomatic battle being waged against Assad into a secondary issue – and might also end up saving his regime.