Al-Nusra & Co gaining strength in Syria

Arab League states seem to live in a realm quite separate from reality.

I’m referring to Syria of course, not the Palestinian cause, which doesn’t even come tenth in Arab states’ lists of priorities now.

I was quite surprised a few days ago when Nabil el-Arabi, Secretary-General of the Arab League, called on the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) – the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition, newly recognised by Arab states – to form a new “executive body.”

This really means a provisional government, meant to take up Syria’s seat at the Arab League ahead of a Doha summit later this month.

The SNC jumped to respond yesterday, announcing that they would postpone a meeting in Istanbul aimed at allocating a SNC shadow prime minister.

Meanwhile, Islamist militants in Syria formed an actual government – under the name, the Religious Committee of the Eastern Zone – to run rebel-controlled areas, particularly ones in the hands of Islamist fundamentalists. These groups have cemented their place as the leaders of many parts of Syria, whether the regime can hold on to power or not.

Jabhat al-Nusra and the other militant groups in Syria are following the Taliban’s model to the letter – implementing Sharia law, providing security, some social services and driving out competitors. The Taliban did this and ended up in control of 90 percent of Afghanistan.

Following the collapse of Sheikh Rabbani’s government in Afghanistan, the people of Kandahar were sick of the lack of law and order, the pillaging, theft and tyranny meted out by warlords. And so they welcomed the Taliban, out of desperation for stability – a priority then higher up the list than food.

Other regions then sent out invitations to the Taliban to take control of them too.

Syria today is living under similar conditions as Afghanistan in the time between the Soviets’ departure and the Mujahedeen’s victory.

Leaving the country as refugees has so far seemed a better option for over a million Syrians since the two-year conflict broke out. Some predictions see that number rising to three million by the end of the year. This also happened in Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia.

Gulf states — especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar — have managed to persuade US Secretary of State John Kerry that ramping up weapons supplies going to the opposition will tip the balance of power and bring the deadlock to an end.

This will in fact achieve one of two objectives: either topple President Bashar al-Assad 's regime quicker; or pressure it into accepting a political solution that would eventually see the government lose power.

The Syrian regime is now well aware that its battle to control the provinces has been lost. So it has begun focusing on protecting the capital, Damascus. The fall of the city would precipitate the fall of the regime and so they’ve send most of the army to defend it.

The kidnapping of 21 United Nations peacekeepers near the Golan Heights by armed groups highlights this decision by Assad. The regime is curling inwards, preparing for the final battle for Damascus.

Instead, the rapidly growing vacuum will be filled by Jabhat al-Nusra and the other jihadist sister groups – just like the Taliban filled the vacuum in Afghanistan. Hezbollah in Lebanon could well be compared as another example.

Israel’s growing anxiety over these developments – by building a border fence next to Syria and deploying more troops to the Golan Heights – also suggests the region is preparing for the growing control of extremist Islamist groups.

Saudi Arabia has assured Kerry that Ukranian weapons being sent to armed opposition groups in the next few weeks will not reach Islamist militias. Whatever the Saudis have argued, it seems to have persuaded Kerry.

But judging from previous experience, it’s hard to know whether the Saudis are in a position to make such promises. Whether directly or indirectly, weapons will almost certainly reach Jabhat al-Nusra and other factions aligned with al-Qaeda’s worldview.

The Syrian regime is in trouble, but so are the Arab states that have so far backed the revolution.

However, it’s Israel that is in the worst state. Peace and quiet in the Golan Heights has prevailed since 1973, but Islamist militias are now bringing that to an end. With or without coordination between these jihadist groups, Israel could find itself facing Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Jabhat al-Nusra and co along its easter borders.

Syria’s moderate opposition have come to the party a little too late. They were too busy fussing over which coalitions to form and where exactly they stood on this issue and that.
Meanwhile jihadists reaped the benefits.