The Realist Prism: Jihadists’ Rise Complicates U.S. Strategy on Syria

The announcement this week that Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), one of the main armed groups battling to take down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has formally announced its allegiance to al-Qaida could signal a major shift in Syria's two-year-long civil war.

It certainly complicates matters for the United States. Over the past several months, Washington has concentrated its efforts on two parallel but complementary tracks: forging a broad-based, secular-leaning, pro-Western provisional government that could take over the administration of areas where the government in Damascus has lost control; and encouraging different rebel military groups to develop a unified command-and-control structure that would guarantee that military aid would not fall into extremist hands. While always acknowledging that elements sympathetic to al-Qaida were present in the opposition, the U.S. hope was that they could be marginalized and that they would not prove to be significant in the effort to topple Assad. Nusra was placed on the U.S. terrorism list in December, in part as a way to encourage other elements in the Syrian opposition to distance themselves from the group if they wanted to obtain more aid and assistance from the West.

In reality, Nusra has, over time, proved to be one of the more effective organizations in the rebel alliance. Because of its longstanding relationship with Sunni resistance groups in Iraq -- notably the main Sunni insurgent group in Iraq, the al-Qaida affiliate known as the Islamic State of Iraq -- Nusra has benefited from a steady flow of weapons, cash and recruits flowing back across the Syria-Iraq border. It has also been able to access the network of donors, principally in the Gulf emirates, who previously helped to bankroll the Sunni resistance in Iraq. Following the model of other Islamist organizations, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, that focus on meeting welfare needs as well as armed struggle, Nusra is providing rudimentary social services in the areas it has seized from government control. Nusra firepower was a critical reason that the city of Raqqa fell this past March into rebel hands, and Nusra controls the hydroelectric dam that powers the region.

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