The news from Syria remains grim. Over the weekend the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, made substantial gains against fighters of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib Province, west of Aleppo. Nusra is now threatening to seize control of one of the last remaining border crossings between Turkey and Syria, at Bab al-Hawa, that remains in FSA hands.
Apparently Nusra, which in the past has operated in de facto alliance with the FSA, has decided to turn on its sometime partners because the U.S., the FSA’s major patron, has been bombing some Nusra personnel–and because Nusra is competing with ISIS for control of areas not held by the Assad regime. Sadly, the Obama administration has not given any aid to the FSA fighters under siege even though they are supposedly our best hope of toppling Bashar al-Assad and replacing him with a non-jihadist regime.
Meanwhile, we learn, courtesy of Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy, that the State Department is eliminating a $500,000-a-year grant to the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an NGO investigating and documenting the Assad regime’s war crimes for possible prosecution in the future. Lynch quotes a State Department official saying, “As far as State Department funding for justice and accountability in Syria, there has been no change. The bottom line is that we remain 100 percent committed to collecting this kind of information.”
Uh-huh. In reality considerable skepticism is in order. While cutting funding for an investigation of Assad’s war crimes, the State Department has just announced $1.6 million in grants to investigate ISIS war crimes. This conveys the clear impression that while Washington is interested in fighting ISIS (and possibly Nusra), it has little interest in fighting Assad. In fact, the U.S. appears to be making common cause with Assad and his Iranian patrons in both Iraq and Syria–a shift symbolized by the U.S. willingness to bomb ISIS but not Assad. This can be seen as part of a larger shift for Obama administration foreign policy toward an accommodation with Iran whose centerpiece is meant to be a nuclear accord later this month.
As I have argued before, this is a tragically misbegotten policy because by aligning ourselves with Assad and the Iranians, we are ensuring that ISIS and the Nusra Front will come to be seen as the only reliable defenders of Sunni interests. The Quds Force, Hezbollah, and other Shiite extremists on the one hand, and ISIS and other Sunni jihadists on the other, are locked in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence: the more power one group of extremists grabs, the more power the other group of extremists will subsequently get because each postures as the defender of sectarian interests against the other. The only way to break this cycle of violence is to help relatively moderate forces such as the FSA and the Sunni tribes of both Syria and Iraq. While the Obama administration pays lip service to these goals, however, its actions on the ground convey a very different–and more troubling–impression.