Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has an important op-ed in today’s Washington Post, has long expressed reticence about U.S. efforts to arm the Syrian opposition. When I was in Baghdad last fall, both officials and ordinary Iraqis expressed concern about the radicalization of the Syrian opposition. That does not mean that they loved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad more: He had provided the underground railway through which for years so many al-Qaeda terrorists had infiltrated Iraq. Nor does fear of the opposition provide an excuse to enable Iranian supply of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Still, the Iraqis—like the Turks and Jordanians—are more attuned to events transpiring in neighboring Syria than are many U.S. senators. And while the senators may be acting with their hearts in the right place, the situation on the ground in Syria has changed dramatically since the debates began. Pundits are correct to question why the Obama administration felt a “responsibility to protect” in Libya, but turned their blind eye toward the suffering in Syria. The best parallel for what is transpiring in Syria, however, is no longer Libya but rather Bosnia, which had no shortage of war criminals on all sides of the fight.
The announcement posted yesterday on jihadi forums under Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s name detailing the union of the Nusra Front in Syria and the Islamic State of Iraq confirms what many analysts have long suspected. “It’s now time to declare in front of the people of the Levant and world that al-Nusra Front is but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and part of it,” he declared. In effect, the Nusra Front becomes one more al-Qaeda affiliate to join al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Ash-Shabaab in Somalia. The Nusra Front is not simply about Syria: Recent postings by Saudi fighters, demands directed to Beijing by Chinese Muslims fighting in Syria, and the eulogy of a Swedish member all underline the internationalization of the Nusra Front. In effect, Syria has become the new Chechnya.
That should put Washington in a diplomatic quandary. Qatari and Turkish support for the Nusra Front is now effectively aiding an al-Qaeda affiliate sworn not only to kill Bashar al-Assad but also Americans. If Gulf analysts in Bahrain and Kuwait are to be believed, Qatar is mucking about with such groups not simply out of religious solidarity, but also because the emir of Qatar is high on the notion that tiny Qatar can afford to muck about and be a player on the international stage. Turkey would rather pump money to an al-Qaeda affiliate than recognize the rights of Syrian Kurds who will not pay fealty to Turkey’s leader, like the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which now controls most Kurdish areas in Syria.
A no-fly zone, such as that Max Boot advocates, would have once helped ordinary Syrians protect themselves against the excesses of Bashar al-Assad’s rule. And it still may not be such a bad idea, so long as it simply does not do the Nusra Front’s work for it. Nor is simply funding the Syrian opposition wise since neither the State Department nor Central Intelligence Agency is skilled at separating the wheat from the chaff among Syrian opposition groups. Liberals will not rise to the top in any safe-haven when faced with a group bent on their repression at any cost. Whether we like it or not, any strategy for Syria must now prioritize crushing the Nusra Front. Defeating Assad and hoping for the best is not a strategy that will bolster U.S. interests.