In Syria, the Challenges of Sanctioning a Rebel Group

4 MINS READDec 12, 2012 | 16:28 GMT
Rebel soldiers in Aleppo, Syria, on Dec. 6

The United States' Dec. 11 decision to recognize the Syrian opposition coalition will likely lead to increased involvement with the opposition, but Washington's announcement earlier in the day that it would blacklist Islamist extremist opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra will make it difficult to overtly fund and supply Syria's other rebel forces in the future. By designating Jabhat al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization, Washington has made it illegal for a person in the United States or under the jurisdiction of the United States to knowingly provide material support or resources to the group. However, it is unclear how the United States would go about distinguishing Jabhat al-Nusra from other rebel units.

Jabhat al-Nusra officially formed in January 2012 when it began to claim responsibility for large vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks against Syrian security and intelligence facilities in Damascus and Aleppo. Since that time, the group has claimed hundreds of attacks against regime forces and infrastructure.

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There is still a great deal about the group — its size, leadership, organization, foreign supporters and the nationalities of its members — that is unknown. Stratfor has received indications that Saudi Arabia is one of the group's foreign backers. However, one thing that is evident is that Jabhat al-Nusra has grown considerably since its inception, with some estimates of its current membership between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters. This growth occurred in part because the group has demonstrated that it has the organization, funding and expertise to execute large attacks on the Syrian regime. These qualities allowed the group to quickly supplement its forces with members from other rebel units. 

However, not all rebel factions agree with Jabhat al-Nusra's tactics. The group has shown indifference to collateral damage so long as security forces are killed. In addition, some rebels are religiously and ideologically opposed to the group, which wants to establish a government based on Sharia once President Bashar al Assad is removed. Nonetheless, the group has unmistakably emerged as one of the major players on the Syrian battlefield.

Challenges of Enforcement

Now that the United States has designated Jabhat al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization, the question is what capabilities Washington has to distinguish the group from other rebel factions. Since the United States is not presently providing support to the group, the addition of the group to the U.S. blacklist does not have any direct ramifications for Jabhat al Nusra's operations at the moment. 

However, the designation would play a role if Western countries decided to begin overtly funding and supplying the Syrian opposition. U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement Dec. 11 recognizing the Syrian opposition coalition as the representative of the Syrian people — the first Syrian group to receive such a recognition from the United States — paves the way for an eventual provision of arms to the rebels. Should the United States become more involved in supporting rebels inside Syria, it would face the difficult task of distinguishing more secular rebel fighters from groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist extremists. Members of Jabhat al-Nusra do not look or sound different from other rebels, many of whom are themselves Islamist. 

Even if the United States were able to determine each rebel's affiliation, there is no reason to believe it would be able to assure that weapons or funds would remain in the hands of the intended. Considering these challenges, the United States will probably continue to work covertly through countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan to supply the rebels in the short term.

Realities on the Ground

In addition to the difficulties of enforcing the blacklist, the United States can expect to see a backlash to the announcement within Syria. Already rebels have criticized the move, recognizing that Jabhat al-Nusra's contribution is needed in the fight against al Assad's forces. Twenty-nine Islamist and Salafist groups stood in solidarity with the group after the U.S. decision was made.

The designation also highlights the looming reality that when al Assad is no longer in power, even if some of the rebels are brought in to negotiate a transition, an insurgency by Islamist extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra will continue, since their overarching objective is to set up an Islamic state in Syria. Even if an Islamist government comes to power, there is a significant difference between Islamist representation in parliament and an Islamic state. Any Islamist presence in government would likely come from Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists, who are at odds with strict jihadist doctrine. Therefore, even if the al Assad regime is removed and replaced, additional unrest and insurgency can be expected.

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