The United States is trying to recruit moderate Salafist-jihadist rebels in Syria for its fight against al Qaeda, but Washington may not be able to find many willing partners among such ideologues. How well the Obama administration fares in its efforts will ultimately determine the extent to which it can counter al Qaeda-inspired transnational jihadism — and how well it can minimize Iran's benefits now that the two have reached an accord.
On Dec. 3, The Wall Street Journal reported that officials from the West and from the Middle East met with leaders of the Salafist-jihadist militias in Ankara. The next day, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Washington believed it prudent to search for moderates among Syria's Islamist rebels. A U.S. State Department spokeswoman confirmed that as part of its strategy to negotiate an end to the Syrian conflict, the Obama administration in fact has reached out to Islamist militias that have not been labeled terrorist organizations.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.
For Washington, negotiating with jihadists is not entirely unprecedented. In 2007, the administration of George W. Bush secretly met with al Qaeda-aligned tribal militias in Iraq to negotiate an end to the Sunni insurgency. More recently, the Obama administration has been negotiating with the Afghan Taliban to try to craft a power-sharing agreement. The objective in both cases was to separate nationalist jihadist forces from transnational ones.
The same logic applies to Syria. Initially, Washington had supported secular democratic forces — the Free Syrian Army — but quickly withheld some support once it realized that militant Islamists were growing stronger. Washington saw regime change in Damascus as a way to undermine Iran's regional influence, but it did not want to empower al Qaeda further — which partly explains why the United States balked at a military intervention after Aug. 21, when the al Assad regime allegedly attacked the rebels with chemical weapons.
The Saudis are furious with Washington's new behavior toward Syria and its detente with the Iranians. Their anger is somewhat justified; the United States wants to use Iran and its Shiite allies to keep Sunni radicalism in check. But that is not the only explanation for Washington's behavior. The United States wants a balance of power in the region, which has grown more volatile since the Arab Spring. Balance requires working with both sides, and Washington does not wish to see Tehran take advantage of its international rehabilitation by enhancing its regional power.
Thus, the United States needs partners among the Sunnis. What this means is that Washington will need to do business with moderates among the Salafists and jihadists who dominate the Syrian rebel landscape. But finding friends among these rebels will be difficult. The groups are hardly uniform; rather, there are various factions, some of which have cooperated with al Qaeda's two main affiliates in the country, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Unlike in Egypt and other parts of North Africa, in Syria the Muslim Brotherhood represents only a small fraction of the opposition. Given that the Brotherhood embraces democracy and the notion of the nation-state, it would have been easier for Washington to court.
But since most Syrian rebel groups subscribe to some version of Salafist-jihadism, the search for moderates becomes even harder. Of course, there is the example of Egypt's largest Salafist group, Hizb al-Nour, which became more moderate after it aligned with the Egyptian military. But this is a specious comparison because Hizb al-Nour, unlike many Syrian rebel groups, is a socio-political movement, not a jihadist movement.
For the Saudis, U.S. efforts to cooperate with Salafist-jihadists that oppose al Qaeda offer some hope: Iran may not take a preponderant role in the region. Riyadh has been working hard to bring together Salafist-jihadist rebels who are strong enough to fight the al Assad regime and simultaneously counter al Qaeda's agenda — namely, turning the region into a base for a larger, future caliphate. The Saudis are much better suited than the Americans to foster moderate Salafist-jihadists. But even still, the ideological landscape is fluid, and there is only so much the kingdom can do.
Thus, it is going to be extremely difficult to cultivate moderate Salafist-jihadists relationships. In the meantime, Iran will respond by activating some of its Shiite Islamist militias, which now include fighters from Afghanistan. The search for moderate Salafist-jihadists could very well end up aggravating the ongoing regional conflict and empowering transnational jihadism even further.