There’s an interesting internal dispute going on within the Syrian opposition right now that I think really helps to illustrate how difficult it will be for the US to ever successfully cultivate a “moderate” opposition in order to counter ISIS and, eventually, to maybe take on Bashar al-Assad. Lately it seems that Jabhat al-Nusra, currently Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, is under a lot of pressure to disavow its ties to Al-Qaeda, primarily from its financial backers in Qatar but also from another major Syrian opposition group, Ahrar al-Sham. For both of those parties, Nusra’s Al-Qaeda affiliation poses grave challenges with respect to US policy. For the Qataris, they would love to be able to officially support Nusra, which is one of the few non-ISIS elements of the anti-Assad forces that has had any real battlefield success, but right now all they can do is look the other way when rich Qatari nationals raise money to fund the group, because the US couldn’t possibly tolerate open Qatari support for an Al-Qaeda affiliate. Ahrar al-Sham, meanwhile, undoubtedly wants to be part of that moderate Syrian opposition that the US keeps promising to throw money at, but it has a longstanding working relationship with Nusra that has left them on the outs with Washington to say the least.
Nusra is so far refusing to repudiate its Al-Qaeda connection, but the pressure to do so may grow in the months to come. But here’s the thing: even if Nusra’s leadership were to decide to sever its ties to Al-Qaeda tomorrow, that’s not going to change the fact that Nusra is an extremist group hell bent on implementing the kind of radical Salafist government in Syria that would, in the long run, be the worst possible outcome to the Syrian civil war for all concerned — the US, the region, the rest of the world, even the Syrians themselves, although at this point any end to the civil war would be preferable to the status quo for most Syrians. They’ve been fighting all this time in support of Al-Qaeda’s vision for Syria and the wider Middle East, and simply disavowing the Al-Qaeda part of that equation doesn’t mean that the underlying agenda would change at all. If Nusra simply dropped its Al-Qaeda branding, would the US suddenly be open to supporting it despite the fact that its toxic ideology would remain unchanged? For that matter, is US aid going to be available to Ahrar al-Sham, which essentially shares Nusra’s ideology without the Al-Qaeda tie?
It is an undeniable fact that the hypothetical moderate opposition army that US policymakers envision assembling, equipping, and training to fight ISIS and Assad would be immeasurably strengthened if the pool of candidates for that army included fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra. They’ve demonstrated battlefield capability that the Free Syria Army, for example, hasn’t, and it may be literally impossible to field an effective force of moderates without them. There will certainly be pressure on the US to treat a rebranded Nusra as part of the “moderate” opposition, both from Qatar and from other elements of the opposition who have worked with Nusra in the past and have been known to react angrily to American airstrikes on Nusra positions. But Ahrar and Nusra aren’t “moderate” by any reasonable definition, and their inclusion in a “moderate” opposition force would make the whole exercise a joke. It would be hard enough as it stands now to transition Syria to something approaching a modern, secular, representative nation-state, but if groups like Ahrar and Nusra are part of the coalition that winds up winning the civil war, there’s virtually no chance that Syria will wind up as anything other than Taliban Afghanistan 2.0. Whether or not these groups have a formal affiliation with Al-Qaeda is far less important than the fact that they share Al-Qaeda’s ideology and its vision.