Saturday, April 13, 2013

Al Qaeda, Jabhat al Nusra, and Syria's future

Someone in Iraq said something and someone in Syria said something else.  The Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda announced that Jabhat al Nusra (JAN) had 'merged' with then, and a Jabhat al Nusra spokesman made an ambiguous but vaguely positive response.  These announcements caused a great stir.  That's not just because of the Al Qaeda name, but also because Jabhat al Nusra has gone beyond words in its avowed intention to establish a radical Islamic state in Syria.

I can't evaluate Jabhat al Nusra's real intentions or the extent to which they've advanced them, much less what they would do after the fall of Assad.  I don't know what would be prudent vigilance against dangerous extremists, and what would be counterproductive over-reaction.  However I am sure about one thing:  JAN cannot take over a post-Assad Syria.  I know this from uncontroversial facts.

These are not facts about the uncertain situation inside Syria.  There, on the one hand, JAN is outnumbered there by the FSA and it's agreed that many JAN adherents joined to fight Assad, not to establish a Sunni extremist state.  (Some Sunni Islamist groups have emphatically rejected the merger announcement.)  On the other hand, no one can say whether JAN's forces would be willing to fight their current allies.  But I hope JAN would ask whether it could win such a fight.

However you assess the capacities of the FSA, it's clear that the international situation tells entirely against the prospects of a JAN victory.  That's because very thing which has blocked international aid against Assad, would favor international aid against JAN.   This holds whether you look at Syria's neighbors or at the non-regional powers.

The non-regional powers

These countries have either supported Assad or been deterred from opposing him due to obstruction in the UN and fears of arms proliferation.  The obstruction vanishes if JAN becomes the enemy.  China and Russia are deeply concerned about Islamic extremism - indeed this is one reason they support Assad - and would be delighted to see JAN crushed.  None of the me-too leftist states like Venezuela or Cuba or Vietnam would feel any differently.

The West, of course, is violently opposed to anything like JAN.  So are Shia Iran and its enemies, the Gulf States:  those who love to trace Al Qaeda back to Saudi Arabia need to remember that the Saudi régime has always been a prime Al Qaeda target.

The neighbors

What then of Syria's neighbors?  Israel needn't even be discussed.  In Lebanon, given Sunni support for the FSA, every faction including the most powerful, Hizbollah, is opposed to anything like JAN.  In Turkey, all the forces that make intervention currently problematic - the non-Muslim minorities, the Kurds, the military, the secularist opposition parties - are hostile to Islamist extremism.  Jordan's entire existence has been one long love affair with the West.  The government of Iraq is the prime enemy of JAN's Iraqi allies.

The consequences

Given the absolute unanimity and unity of nation-state opposition to JAN, it's not hard to see what would happen in the event of a conflict between JAN and the FSA.

Consider supply routes first.  JAN would have exactly one source of supply, its underground in Iraq.  However the FSA would have direct or indirect air support and in that sense complete mastery of the air.  This mastery would involve much more advanced air forces than Assad's; JAN's anti-aircraft resources would be utterly inadequate.  In these circumstances, there is no chance at all the JAN could retain control of border posts on the Iraq frontier.  This means that its sole source of supply would be cross-border smuggling, closely monitored by Western satellites and drones.  The seizures of régime arms that now provide much of the rebellion's material would have ended.  In these circumstances, adequate resupply would be impossible.

What support might the FSA expect?  Direct intervention on the ground would be possible though probably unwelcome.  But as far as equipment goes, pretty much anything useful would be available.  The one type of weapon the West does not want to provide, MANPADS (portable anti-aircraft missile systems) would offer no advantage in a fight with JAN, so the big source of arms proliferation fears becomes a non-issue.

In a confrontation with JAN, the FSA would benefit from advantages unimaginable today:  unlimited supplies of anything it liked and strong support on all of Syria's frontiers.  It would be fighting an adversary currently about one-third its size, cut off from advanced weapons and utterly lacking in reliable supply routes.  It would benefit from air superiority established by itself or, more likely, its allies.  All Syria's religious minorities would at least have to see the FSA as the lesser evil.

The idea that JAN, in these circumstances, had any chance of sustaining itself in Syria, let alone conquering the country, is a non-starter.  Its situation would be much worse than today's.  Internationally, it would face not only NATO or the West or some powerful neighbors but, effectively, the whole world.  It would not be attacking a hated dictatorship, but former allies that had overthrown a dictatorship.  It would be fighting, not in a region few nations care about like Somalia or Mali, but in a country to which the 'great powers' assign great importance.  Its well-informed enemies already have abundant resources and logistics in place - this is not Afghanistan.  It is awful to think of civil war following the fall of Assad, but hopefully these realities will prevent just such a conflict.

This is not speculative punditry but an inventory of the obvious.  It makes no arrogant assumptions about the hearts and minds of Syrians; it claims no insight into the corridors of power.  It builds on two things - the existence of the FSA and the long-standing, public, well-established policies of nation-states.  This seems a solid basis for optimism about the power of Al Qaeda in Syria.

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