Syrian Civil War: Arming Secular Rebels Only Way to Weaken Al-Qaeda Ones


Following last week's announcement of the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) swearing allegiance to the wider al-Qaeda network, this week's report of $1 billion transferred from Saudi Arabia to Jordan for arms to supply Syria's non-al-Qaeda affiliated rebels should come as no surprise. The Kingdom of Jordan, its capital of Amman just 100 hundred miles southwest of Damascus, has felt the full brunt of the civil war raging in Syria.  Jordan, now home to 432,000 refugees with an average of 2,000 more crossing in daily, has reached a point where it can accept no more. 

King Abdullah, the ruler of Jordan, has been forced to play a delicate game of regional chess as the war in Syria has evolved. Jordan, a resource poor state, has traditionally received budget support from the wealthy Saudi Arabia, which itself has supported rebel groups in Syria since they first took up arms against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Yet, King Abdullah has been wary of instability on his northern border especially given the Islamist bent of many of the most powerful opposition brigades in Syria. Abdullah's father, Hussein, fought a brutal civil war in the 1970s against Palestinian nationalists backed by Syria, the memory of which haunts him as he seeks to navigate the current crisis.

As the opposition in Syria has made gains vis-à-vis the regime, the balance of power has slowly shifted with heavily armed regime forces being pushed back on important fronts by the lightly armed but more numerous opposition forces. However the opposition is not unified, with more western-leaning brigades being challenged for influence on the ground by more radical brigades such as JN. King Abdullah, fearing the export of jihadists from Syria to Jordan, has been forced to choose between a series of bad options. He can:

1. Seal his border and hope that the war resolves itself without affecting his kingdom further.

2. Allow still more refugees into his kingdom and hope that the non-al-Qaeda opposition prevails.

3. Choose sides and help those who he does not know and does not yet trust.

Since February it seems that King Abdullah has made his choice and has decided to help the non-Al-Qaeda elements of the Syrian opposition with arms transfers and military training programs.  According to one Arab official, "If you want to weaken al-Nusra, you do it not by withholding [weapons] but by boosting the other groups." These arms transfers have occurred with the full knowledge and involvement of American intelligence agencies whose officers participate in the vetting of rebel commanders to receive the shipments. King Abdullah and his western allies are gambling that these arms, which include anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, will put the non-Al-Qaeda elements of the opposition at an advantage and thus weaken the influence of JN in the post-Assad political environment.

The risks associated with this strategy are many. What if the provision of these shipments provoke retaliatory strikes by the Assad regime, what if the arms supplied fall into the hands of the very brigades they are meant to counterbalance, or what if these arms eventually find their way back to Jordan to threaten the very government that supplied them? The answers to these questions are unknown, but the prowess of JN in battle has been proven and its abilities threaten to overwhelm the non-al-Qaeda affiliated brigades whom Jordan and America wish to see take power after Assad falls.  Therefore, the decision to influence facts on the ground now has taken precedence over the possibility of future threats.

The fight in Syria is complex; it does not have two sides. The regional and international powers that seek to control the chaos have very limited options. While the decision to supply yet more arms to a fight that has degenerated into brutal sectarian strife may seem indefensible to some, the alternative of letting the battle simmer with no hope of the opposition defeating the regime seems equally as offensive. King Abdullah’s decision to aid the most moderate of the opposition forces, and thereby offset the influence of al-Qaeda, seems the only truly justifiable course of action.