10 Apr 2013

Syria dilemma: risk arming al-Qaeda or watch civilians die?

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” said the eighteenth century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke. Or in the case of Syria, maybe not.

Today the British Foreign Secretary William Hague and his US counterpart, John Kerry, are meeting representatives of the Syrian National Congress, the opposition coalition in exile that claims to oversee the fighters on the ground.

The UK and France are sympathetic to SNC requests for lethal weapons, to increase their chances of overthrowing President Bashar al Assad.

The US is more inclined to stand back, all the while giving a nod and a wink to the Gulf states and Turkey, which are reportedly arming several rebel groups.

Arming al-Qaeda

But will sending weapons have the desired effect? Jihadi groups are on the rise in Syria, and it seems increasingly likely that secular and Islamist rebels will end up fighting each other. On the one hand, arming the secular opposition might improve their chances of coming out on top. On the other, weapons supplied by the west could easily fall into jihadi hands.

In December the Americans designated al-Nusra, the most powerful jihadi group in Syria, as a terrorist organisation and said they were effectively one organisation with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

That was proved yesterday when the leader of AQI announced that his organisation has united with al-Nusra to form The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

That came swiftly on the heels of an audio tape by Ayam al Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden as leader of Al Qaeda, calling on jihadis in Iraq and Syria to forge an Islamic state.

Today al-Nusra released an audio tape of its leader pledging allegiance to Zawahiri. This is the first time they have officially declared themselves as a franchise of al-Qaeda.

‘Best armed’

Judging by their statements, al-Nusra is playing a long game – overthrowing Assad is just an incidental goal. Their real aim is to create an Islamic state across the region, and they’re prepared for a long war.

“Obviously jihadis are going to dominate because they are the best armed and the most coherent,” says Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics, whose latest book documents what’s happened in Iraq since US intervention in 2003.

“They have the best fighters.”

He is unsurprised that Iraqi jihadis are playing a strong role in Syria. “They have become the old men of jihadi violence in the region,” he says. “They have the institutional memory.”

The west is caught on the horns of a dilemma: do nothing and watch more Syrians die, primarily at the hands of the government, or send weapons, knowing that they may end up in the hands of al-Qaeda.

“It’s not easy telling politicians that nothing can be done,” says Toby Dodge,  “But giving lethal aid to the Syrian opposition is just mad.”

I wonder what Edmund Burke would have done.

Read more:

Syria’s Descent: the agony of Aleppo’s children

The jihadist groups ‘running the show’ in Syria

Syria’s Descent: what weapons do the rebels have

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