By Ivan Eland
The U.S. government recently designated the Syrian opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra Front a foreign terrorist organization. The move was designed to build Western support against the Syrian government by alleviating fears that money and weapons donated to the opposition would flow to a militant group. The designation means that Americans cannot have financial ties to the Nusra Front and is meant to be a precedent for other nations considering imposing similar sanctions on the group.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, recently noted that “Extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra are a problem, an obstacle to finding the political solution that Syria’s going to need.”
What the ambassador forgot to mention was that U.S. Middle East policy has played a big role in the group’s rise and potency. The group has some of the Syrian opposition’s most competent and battle-hardened warriors, and the reason is that the group is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Nusra Front gets funding, fighters, and training from its Iraqi brethren. And of course, al-Qaeda in Iraq came into being to fight the ill-advised U.S. invasion of Iraq. Critics of the Iraq war predicted that battle-tested fighters from the conflict would be exported, after it was finished, to other Islamic countries to destabilize their governments. Of course, you didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that that prediction would likely come true.
In addition, U.S. sanctions are mere symbolism, because during a chaotic civil war, arms sent to the Syrian opposition by, say, Turkey, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia could easily end up in the Nusra Front’s hands, either on purpose or because of the unsettled conditions in the country. Likewise, if John McCain and the other salivating American hawks have their way, and the U.S. begins overt arms supplies to the rebels, the United States could become an inadvertent arms supplier to a group on its own terrorism list. Even now with supposed U.S. vetting of Syrian groups getting weapons from the three aforementioned countries, more and more weapons are getting into the hands of Islamist militants. And there are other militant groups in Syria besides the Nusra Front.
In the worst case, by putting the Nusra Front on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist groups, the United States, as it has done many times before, will create a new enemy. A group that wasn’t focusing its attacks on the United States may begin to have incentives to do so, as has happened with the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from Yemen.
And all of this is occurring in Syria in the face of many previous examples of inadvertent consequences of arming either foreign groups or countries. For example, in 1980s, the United States funneled arms and money through Pakistan to the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviets. The Pakistanis gave the military aid to the most radical groups, which morphed into the anti-U.S. terrorist group al-Qaeda. Now, the United States is giving arms and aid to a Pakistani government that is supporting Taliban insurgents fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan; some of the American aid is leaking through to the Afghan Taliban.
Lastly, the chaotic Western war against Libya liberated many of Moammar Gadhafi’s weapons stocks from Libyan government control. Those arms ended up being used by al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist rebels to create a potential terrorist sanctuary in northern Mali. Not learning a thing, the United States is pushing Mali’s African neighbors to use force to take out the Islamists by force. Who knows where the weapons from that potential war might end up?
Given the very real possibility of inadvertent adverse consequences from any U.S. intervention in Syria, the U.S. should not ship arms or money to the Syrian rebels, should not have deemed the Nusra Front a terrorist organization, and should not have imposed financial sanctions on the group, which is no enemy of the United States. The United States already has enough enemies and doesn’t need more.
About the author: Ivan Eland
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.