US Plays Dangerous Islamist Roulette in Syria

Below the fold in today’s Wall Street Journal (WSJ) was a mind numbing article about the Obama Administration caving in to support an Islamic Front opposition group in another desperate move In the volatile Middle East, “U.S., Allies Reach Out to Syria’s Islamist Rebels”.  The motivation is to unite Saudi and Emirate funding to support a fundamentalist militia, Jaysh al-Islam (Islamic Front)  as a Plan B against the two principal Al Qaeda affiliates, the Al Nusra Front and  the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant  (ISIS).   These Al Qaeda affiliates have effectively vanquished the so-called secular opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the country’s North and East adjoining Iraq. The al Qaeda affiliates have been bolstered by foreign fighters from Iraq, Chechnya in Southern Russia and an increasing number of Jihadis from EU countries.

Zahran Alloush, leader of proposed Syrian Islamic Front. Source: AFP/Getty Image

These seemingly desperate efforts are directed at presenting a unified  opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) at an UN-sponsored round of alleged peace discussions in Geneva in late January 2014. The SNC is backed by the London 11, the nations in a loose coalition opposing the Assad regime. Assad is backed by Iran and its proxy Hezbollah with support from Russia. The  Assad military, supplied by Russian weapons and endless flow of arms from Iran,  has scored some successes despite acknowledging the Chemical Weapons disaster in the Damascus suburbs in August 2013.  The Assad regime has advanced in certain areas, while the Al Qaeda affiliates have taken control of swaths of the embattled country now in its 33 month of civil war with over 120,000 dead. The objective of the al Qaeda Affiliates is to create mini-Caliphates ruled under Sharia. The fundamentalist Islamic Front is headed by Syrian Zahran Alloush, whose resume indicates that there may be little difference between his form of fundamentalism and that of the Al Qaeda affiliates. The WSJ report noted this about his background:

The leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Alloush, is a Syrian educated in Saudi Arabia whose father is a preacher in the Saudi holy city of Medina. Mr. Alloush pledged allegiance late last month to the Islamic Front.

On his purported Twitter feed and in interviews posted on YouTube, he has called for Syria to be ruled by an Islamic council rather than a democratically elected body. He also has spoken in YouTube videos approvingly of the torture of Shiite opponents fighting for Mr. Assad.

His rebel faction—with an efficient media arm that prominently features Mr. Alloush, usually in closely trimmed beard and tight fitting camouflage—denied it has taken funds from Saudi or any other Gulf state. However, Mr. Alloush has in tweets thanked private donors from the Gulf.

Jaysh al-Islam is based in part in Ghouta, the Damascus suburb hit in August by the worst chemical attack of the civil war. At times, it coordinates with the al Qaeda-allied opposition forces on the battlefield, including in fighting this month to try to break regime sieges of Damascus suburbs.

Note what the WSJ article suggests is the underlying rationale for the US abandoning the secular opposition acceding to Saudi requests for formation of the Islamic Front to combat the Al Qaeda Affiliates:

Fractures among Syria’s opposition forces have bedeviled the U.S. effort.

Western diplomats said they are pressing the Islamists to rein in their criticism of moderate leader Gen. Salim Idris and the Syrian National Council, the opposition’s political umbrella group, arguing that tensions between the opposition factions risk undermining the Geneva peace conference.

Gen. Idris and Ahmad Jarba, head of the Istanbul-based SNC, have struggled to maintain discipline among their forces on the ground in Syria, Western diplomats said. And the umbrella group has no say over the activities of the Islamist militias.

A senior opposition official close to Gen. Idris said the general has welcomed the formation of the Islamic Front as a way to unify the opposition and exclude more extremist factions.

[…]

The official … said the two major battalions in the Front will be the key to forming a spearhead for any future campaign to drive al Qaeda-linked ISIS out of northern and eastern Syria.

“It cannot be done without their buy-in. It’s definitely understood by our Gulf partners. The question is do Western policy makers, specifically Washington, realize that the only way to fight back against al Qaeda is to work with these groups,” the opposition official said.

The only ethnic group that has shown pluck and strength in clearing out the Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria has been the Kurds in the country’s Northeast. The Kurds have achieved virtual autonomy in their ancestral homeland, Rojava , abutting both Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.  The Kurds have control over the commercial breadbasket of Syria and its oil reserves. Not unlike their Kurdish cousins in adjacent Iraq, the Kurds in Syria have discussed the possibility of having oil flow through Turkish pipelines to the Mediterranean.

The Obama Administration’s only gesture of support to quiet things down in Syria has been to assist in the challenge to destroy the Syrian chemical warfare stockpiles cleared by the Hague-based Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Hassan al-Laqqis, Assassinated Hezbollah military leader. Source: IBT

Neighboring Lebanon is now embroiled in a new controversy.  There are reports that Israel may have been behind the assassination of a Hezbollah military leader, Hassan al-Laqqis, who masterminded the transfers of strategic weapons that were the subject of a series of dramatic air attacks inside Syria by the IAF.

Tensions have risen dramatically regarding Syria without any substantive resolution of objectives by SNC and  the London 11 including the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates.  The US and Saudi Arabia partnering in establishment of an Islamic Front  composed of fundamentalist fighters adds a degree of risk that the Geneva talks with the Assad Regime may  break down or be cancelled.  That raises the likely prospect that internecine bloodshed will continue in Syria. The US is now caught up in a dangerous form of Islamist roulette by siding with fundamentalist opposition in Syria to fight against al Qaeda Affiliates both groups supporting Sharia.  This could result in the disintegration of Syria into a failed state divided into warring ethno religious enclaves. Thus fueling massive refugee outflows, causing more problems for adjacent countries like Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Israel.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.

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