Defeating al-Qaeda in Syria, Not Assad
Jordan has agreed to spearhead a Saudi-led push to arm rebel groups through its borders into southern Syria, in a move that coincides with the transfer from Riyadh to Amman of more than $1bn (£650m).
It marks a significant change for Jordan, from a policy of trying to contain the spillover threat posed by the civil war across its border to one of actively aiming to end it before it engulfs the cash-strapped kingdom.
Jordan’s role as a conduit for arms has emerged in the past two months as Saudi Arabia, some Gulf states, Britain and the US have sharply increased their backing of some rebels to try to stop the advances of al-Qaida-linked groups among them.
A push to defeat al-Qaida, rather than an outright bid to oust Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, is Jordan’s driving force.
This news coincides with my argument that Obama’s policy in Syria long ago abandoned any effort to oust the Assad regime and is instead geared toward containing and undermining the rise of al-Qaeda militants among the rebel opposition.
Non-interventionists have decried the administration’s pretense of aiding the rebels, and rightly so. But many are also wedded to the belief that Washington is engaged in an effort to impose regime change and establish a client state in Syria, simultaneously eliminating Iran’s major ally. As I’ve written, however, this is not the reality.
That said, the efforts of Jordan, the Gulf states, and the Obama administration to arm and train moderate elements of the Syrian rebels is an exercise in futility. As has been reported for months, al-Qaeda offshoots in the Syrian opposition like Jabhat al-Nusra are the rebels’ main fighting force. The major gains of the rebel fighters in the past year can largely be attributed to these jihadists: they are the best armed, most well trained, and fiercest battalions around. This partly explains why the bulk of the rebels, jihadists or not, have repeatedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic extremists.
So, an effort to undermine the rebels’ main source of strategic and military utility will not result in an end to the conflict or to the Assad regime. The aid will not be “decisive,” as the wonks say. That is, it will not come in the form of tanks and anti-aircraft weapons and therefore will not stand against the Syrian military. And anyways, the so-called “vetting process” used to distinguish moderates from extremists is basically a farce.
In addition, the policy of aiding proxy rebels is at least part of what has sustained the conflict for so long, worsening the humanitarian crisis and aiding al-Qaeda’s rise in Syria. Aid that is redirected away from extremists will still be doing damage, never mind the fact that the Saudi Arabian and Jordanian regimes can’t exactly be trusted to actually aid “moderates” fighting for “democracy” post-Assad.