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Syria, civil war, and the murky details

December 14, 2012

With its announcement earlier this week, the Obama Administration seems like it’s taking a decisive step in Syria, but it seems to be the only one who thinks so. President Obama’s designation of Jabhat al-Nusra, a militia wing fighting in Syria, a terrorist organization, has many wondering the point during a civil war. Most the opposition is fighting the regime, and some have even been called out for human rights violations.

With signs that the regime’s ground forces strategy is weakening, Obama’s move points to a long-term strategy. Bashar Assad’s recent use of scud missiles seems more like a last desperate attempt to scare the rebels (and the international community) after 20 months of conflict. The Obama Administration wants to make clear that when a post-Assad Syria emerges—which might be soon—extremist forces should not co-opt the political transition. Especially one that has ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq, and that has been targeting Alawites in Syria. Sidelining Jabhat al-Nusra on the international stage diminishes the clout the group can have in a post-Assad Syria, which will inevitably need the international community for support.

But, that’s long-term strategy. The present reality on the ground isn’t as clear as President Obama’s designation of “good opposition” and “bad opposition”. Twenty months in, Assad is still in power, and rumors of chemical weapons have been growing everyday. A diplomatic solution seems more like wishful thinking than a real option. The rebels will essentially have to take down Assad by force. It’s no surprise, then, that the leader of “Friends of Syria”, the opposition coalition that Obama recently recognized, is protesting the blacklisting of Jabhat al-Nusra. The group is considered one of the more effective fighting forces on the ground.

US strategy seems unclear too—perhaps because the Administration is struggling with the appropriate strategy. There has been no talk of military intervention and there is no indication that the US will arm the rebels. Yet, it’s also limiting the agency of a fighting group that many in the opposition deem essential to reaching their objectives. Details get murky in a time of civil war.

President Obama’s move poses some tough questions for the opposition. What does the blacklisting mean for them when they need Jabhat al-Nusra to take down Assad in the short term? How will they deal with those Syrians who have joined al-Nusra to fight Assad, not to immerse themselves in an radical ideology? And what, if anything, does this mean for a post-Assad regime that has had ‘dealings with terrorists’?

Welcome to international diplomacy, Friends of Syria.

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