The emergence of the Islamic State over the last year has complicated U.S. foreign policy toward Syria, altering the administration’s calculus of how best to isolate the Assad regime while confronting ISIS. U.S. efforts to train and equip “moderate rebels” to fight Assad have faced major setbacks and produced little results, with only 60 completing training to date. With few options on the table to counter the Islamic State, Western governments are beginning to reconsider their assessment of certain violent extremist groups that also oppose ISIS. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies recently termed the phenomenon “the Daesh effect,” using the Arabic term for ISIS. If the “Daesh effect” comes to fruition, hitherto sanctioned extremist groups could benefit from loosened restrictions on financing and reduced reputational risk, with unintended future consequences.
According to Schanzer, there are indications that Israel has recalculated its threat assessment of Hamas and the Nusra Front, a Syrian extremist group allied with Al-Qaeda that has battled ISIS. Reports suggest that Israel is considering a truce with Hamas in the interest of combatting ISIS, and rather than target Nusra Front elements on its borders, Israel has treated its wounded fighters in Israeli hospitals. Schanzer also warns that there is “a growing American chorus asserting that the Nusra Front is worthy of Western support because it, too, is engaged in a battle with Daesh,” including Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Syria.
Indeed, rumors have swirled for months that the Nusra Front was considering distancing itself from Al-Qaeda at the urging of Qatar and other Gulf states, which had offered to boost funding and other support as an inducement. Such a break from Al-Qaeda might make it easier for the United States to consider cooperation with the Nusra Front as an alternative to the current anemic approach, further enhancing the militia group’s ability to combat both ISIS and the Assad regime. Indeed, the release of US-backed rebels by the Nusra Front fueled speculation that cooperation may be on the horizon.
Several recent reports suggest that, for now, the potential for U.S. cooperation with the Nusra Front remains premature. On August 5th, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Sa'd bin Sa'd Muhammad Shariyan al-Ka’bi, a Qatari financier of the Nusra Front, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, subjecting him to financial sanctions. The Nusra Front itself remains designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the United Nations. Addressing the impact of the nuclear deal with Iran on its financial support for terrorism, former State Department counterterrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin recently wrote that “the growing threat in the neighborhood comes more from jihadis like the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State than any other source.” Similarly, this month a New York Times article about the slim prospects of US government cooperation with another extremist militia in Syria noted that “its cooperation with the Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, remained a major hurdle,” and quoted an administration official saying, “As long as they remain close to Nusra, I can’t see us working with them.” Recent reporting indicates that the US “battered” the Nusra Front with drone strikes after the group kidnapped US-allied moderates, inflicting casualties and forcing a tactical retreat by the Nusra Front.
It seems, therefore, that a more likely scenario may be the strategy recently proffered by Clint Watts, a Fox Fellow for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who suggested that the United States work to splinter the Nusra Front—through a combination of airstrikes, sanctions, and diplomatic pressure on the organization’s regional supporters—and then partner with the more moderate of the remaining factions. The recent terrorist designation of al-Ka’bi may indicate that the U.S. is beginning to pursue such a strategy, but it certainly demonstrates that in Syria, the enemies of America’s enemies are not yet its friends.