Washington’s Salafist Quagmire in Syria.
The Obama administration and the Turkish government of Prime Minister Erdogan are faced with a Syrian quagmire that is prompting them to send a signal to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh´s support of fundamentalist Salafi Jihadi groups in Syria is becoming increasingly counter productive. Riyadh is not only creating a public relations dilemma for Washington and Ankara, the influx of fundamentalist Salafists which have been streaming to Syria over recent months is making it increasingly difficult, if not impossible to build a coherent and credible Syrian opposition that could be used as an argument for regime change.
Two defeated campaigns of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in June and July failed to secure the city of Aleppo and depleted the FSA of its best trained and best armed Syrian and foreign fighters. The defeat also made it impossible to emulate the strategy that had been successful in Libya. To secure Aleppo as a seat for a Transitional Syrian Government that could have called on the international community, that is the USA, NATO and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, to implement a No-Fly-Zone and to provide other military support.
The defeat of the campaign for Aleppo has changed both the military and political dynamics of the Syrian crisis. Saudi Arabia increased its support of fundamentalist Salafist groups to compensate for the FSA´s losses. Since the end of July and the beginning of August there has been a significant influx of Saudi sponsored foreign fighters and in particular an influx of fundamentalist Salafist fighters in Syria. A recent report issued by the International Crisis Group recognizes the influx and a cohort of both military, political and security problems it implies.
The problem for Washington and the pro-opposition coalition is that a coherent and political opposition has failed to manifest. The National Transitional Council of Syria has always been an incoherent group that was plagued by internal rivalries. Since the failed campaign for Aleppo it has more or less entirely collapsed. The influx of Salafist groups which are fighting in Syria has also led to, that ever more radical elements are demanding political influence, and Washington has difficulties to overtly negotiate with known terrorist groups about the future of a free and democratic Syria.
The lost battles for Aleppo and the subsequent influx of Salafists has also been noticed by prominent commanders within the Free Syrian Army. On 28 September the prominent FSA commander Captain Khaled Abdel Rahman al-Zamel, accompanied by ten other FSA officers, took part in a conference of Syrian opposition groups who are seeking a Syrian solution to the crisis and who are tolerant of the Baath Party and President al-Assad.
Syrians have closely followed the protracted civil war in Lebanon and the devastation of Iraq first by the USA and allies, and subsequently by religious fanaticism and terrorism. Both the military and the political Syrian opposition are becoming increasingly concerned about the prospect of Syria degenerating into a spiral of religious and ethnic violence.
Washington seems to have interpreted the trend correctly. Knowing that the influx of Salafists and other radicals is making it difficult to argue for the overt support of an almost non existing political opposition and to argue for a continuation of material support for known terrorist organizations it is asking Saudi Arabia to back off a little.
The recent aggravation of border incidents between Syria and Turkey could indicate a change of strategy. Lacking a credible political opposition to support and not being able to overtly support organizations that are otherwise designated terrorist organizations, it is not unlikely that a direct military confrontation between Turkey and Syria is the next best option. It is however, questionable whether Erdogans AKP government can rally the support of Turkey´s population behind a military campaign against Syria. An escalation of the border clashes into an full scale military confrontation would most likely be met with massive popular opposition that could lead to the fall of the AKP government. A subsequent military disengagement would be equivalent to a defeat of Turkey and NATO.
The Turkish parliament´s decision on 4. October to allow cross border military operations, after a mortar shell that was fired from within Syrian territory killed a Turkish family of four was met with massive protests and demonstrations in Ankara and in cities throughout Turkey. The Turkish population is becoming increasingly worried by the influx of Salafist and other extremist fighters who either use Turkey as base of operations or as transit for waging Jihad in Syria. Critique has further increased after it transpired that the mortar that was used in the attack is identical to a model Turkey provided for the FSA. Turkey has also been widely critisized for endangering air-safety by forcing a Syrian A-320 Airbus to land in Ankara.
Regardless whether the support of Salafists by Saudi Arabia continues overtly or covertly, it is presenting both Washington, Turkey and other ”Friends of Syria” with a serious quagmire.
There is no credible political opposition that supports the continuation of a military campaign, and a continuation of a military campaign with the help of imported extremists is likely to undermine both the political and the armed Syrian opposition.With winter approching, it looks as if the Arab Spring in Syria is turning into NATO´s Fall.