President Obama capped an unusually dramatic week of diplomacy at the United Nations with the first conversation between American and Iranian presidents since the 1979 Iranian revolution, and, following a meeting between the U.S. and Russian top diplomats, with a unanimous vote on the U.N. Security Council for the surrender and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. The one major player in Syria’s civil war who was not represented in last week’s high-level talks in New York, however, decided to throw a monkey-wrench at the United States’ carefully choreographed diplomacy.
The announcement that 11 of the largest armed factions among the Syrian rebels have united under an Islamist umbrella held aloft by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group, represents a potential game-changer. The unlikely alliance amounts to a warning shot at the United States, the Syrian Opposition Council, which had sought to represent the fractious opposition in negotiations, and an international community that is seeking a negotiated end to a bloody civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives. If the odd-couple alliance holds it will greatly complicate U.S. efforts to arm “moderate” elements of the Syrian rebellion. Already it has put territory on the border of NATO ally Turkey under the black banner of al-Qaeda.
“To the extent this is not just a trial balloon and this murky alliance holds, then it is very troubling that some of the rebel factions we considered arming are now allied with an al-Qaeda affiliate,” said David Pollack, an analyst with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington. “On the other hand, a number of these secular and nationalist rebel factions have been openly battling with the jihadi groups in recent weeks, and if this ultimately splits the two it will make it even more important for the United States to finally arm and back the groups we want to see win.”
The surprise announcement of an Islamist rebel alliance was aimed most directly at the U.S. and its diplomatic gambit to end the war. The Obama administration has made no secret of its strategy for using the deal reached this week to secure Syria’s chemical weapons as the jumping off point for negotiations in Geneva that the U.S. and Russia have pushed for ending the war.
“Agreement on chemical weapons should energize a larger diplomatic effort to reach a political settlement within Syria. I do not believe that military action — by those within Syria, or by external powers — can achieve lasting peace,” Obama said in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly. Such a negotiated settlement should include a transfer of power from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, he said, and preserve the unity of a functioning Syrian state. “Those of us who continue to support the moderate opposition must persuade them that the Syrian people cannot afford a collapse of state institutions, and that a political settlement cannot be reached without addressing the legitimate fears of Alawites and other minorities.”
On one level, the new rebel alliance was a vote of no-confidence in the U.S.-promoted peace talks, and in the Western-backed political opposition of the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the rebels’ interlocutor. The SOC chairman Ahmad al-Jarba had recently announced his willingness to attend the as-yet-unscheduled Geneva talks, but the new Islamist alliance declared in its statement that the SOC “does not represent us.”
Upon hearing of the new alliance, Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, cut short a trip to Paris to return to Syria and try and persuade the more moderate factions to reconsider the new alliance. However, Idriss and the rest of the rebel leaders have been bitterly disappointed that the Obama administration has been slow to arm “moderate” opposition factions as promised. They were further infuriated by the U.S. decision not to launch threatened military strikes at the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons in August.
“A lot of the Syrian rebels are very upset that instead of striking at the Syrian regime militarily as promised, the Obama administration is now negotiating with Assad. That crushed the last hope the Syrian opposition had for Western intervention on their behalf,” said Valerie Szybala, a Syrian analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “So the announcement of this new alliance was a proclamation in the strongest possible terms that we not only reject the U.S. strategy, we reject U.S. leadership that, by continually promising and not delivering, has actively undermined some of the rebel groups we claim to want to help.”
On another level, however, the new Islamist rebel alliance may be a defensive move against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a rogue offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq that has recently battled not only with secular rebel factions in northern Syria, but also with the al-Nusra Front. Recently, a local ISIL leader killed Kamal Hamami, a Free Syrian Army military commander who was a member of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council. The killing set off weeks of fighting between the rebel groups that forced Turkey to close a key border crossing into Syria. The supposedly secular Tawheed Brigade of Aleppo stepped in to try and mediate the disputes, and it was among the most prominent rebel faction to join with al-Nusra in the new Islamist alliance. Importantly, al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant is not part of the new grouping.
For the time being, the new alliance leaves the Obama administration pushing peace talks in Geneva, but with no interlocutor representing the majority of the rebels actually fighting on the ground. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition seems intent on justifying Assad’s narrative of a war between his regime and Islamic extremists allied with al-Qaeda.
“The Syrian revolution didn’t start out as a drive for an Islamic state, but over time it has been steered in that direction by rebel groups who are desperate, and who know that an Islamist agenda attracts the most financial support in the region,” Szybala said. “So the situation in Syria today is about as complicated and dangerous as you could imagine in your wildest nightmares.”