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From Terror to Counter-Terrorism: Radicalization in Syria and the Rising Legitimacy of the Assad Regime

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Surpassing 1,000 days of conflict, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has weathered the onslaught of a regionally supported insurgency, international isolation, and a near U.S. military intervention following the alleged use of chemical weapons. With the military support of Iran and Hezbollah and political backing of Russia, Assad has in recent months reemerged from pariah status, aiming to reclaim his position as the lion of Damascus. The formation of the Islamic Front in late November, comprised of over 45,000 fighters from the uprising's most prominent Islamist factions, has now provided the Assad regime with a golden opportunity to vie for increased international legitimacy at the negotiating tables of Geneva in January.

Amidst the increasing marginalization of Western-backed political and armed opposition groups, a growing consensus is emerging in the international community, supporting a weakened Assad regime, stripped of its chemical weapons arsenal and production capabilities; as opposed to an Islamist-oriented state, or prolonged al-Qaeda-lead insurgency. In this framework, recent developments on-the-ground in northern Syria leading to the suspension of U.S. and British non-lethal aid on December 11, may represent a strategic turning point in the Syrian conflict.

Comprised of Islamist factions generally viewed as moderate relative to their al-Qaeda counterparts, the Islamic Front has rejected the authority of the Western-backed political opposition in exile, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), and called for the replacement of the Assad regime with an Islamic state governed by Sharia (Islamic law). On December 10, the Islamic Front additionally seized the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey from rebel factions loyal to the SNC-affiliated Supreme Military Council (SMC). The seizure was preceded in early December by the capture of a nearby SMC arms deport which additionally served as an SMC military headquarters -- thereby prompting the U.S. decision to suspend non-lethal aid to northern Syria.

The capture of the SMC's arms depot and seizure of the Bal al-Hawa border crossing by Islamic Front forces highlights growing fractures between rebel contingents, and represents a marked escalation of hostilities between non-al-Qeada Islamist factions and Western-backed armed militias. To this date, such constituencies have largely maintained tranquil relations, highlighted by operational cooperation and the formerly expressed allegiance of several Islamist groups to the SMC's command. While the outcome of both attacks tactically bolsters the Islamic Front's military capabilities, they additionally underline a zero-sum strategic orientation vis a vis secular-nationalist political and armed opposition groups. In this context, the Islamic Front's capture of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing may serve as a prelude for additional operations targeting SMC-held entry points into Syria, including the Daraa border crossing with Jordan, located in southern Syria.

The SNC is thus slated to enter into the Geneva II peace negotiations with the Assad regime on January 22 from a weakened position. With all on-the-ground rebel factions outside of the SMC having rejected the Geneva II process and amidst the consolidation of Islamic militancy in Syria, the forthcoming peace conference is increasingly likely to focus on combating growing "extremism." U.S. concerns with the formation and subsequent actions of the Islamic Front, combined with the continued prominence of al-Qaeda linked factions in Syria, are likely to further diminish international pressure on the Assad regime, providing it with a golden opportunity to seek renewed legitimacy.