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U.S. Races to Shape Endgame in Syria

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The Obama administration has intensified its efforts to influence the configuration of Syria's post-Assad political landscape by isolating jihadist elements on the ground, unifying Western-friendly rebel factions and piecing together a more moderate political opposition as the noose tightens around Damascus. The expedited diplomatic and counterterrorism maneuvers are being driven by recent rebel gains and the prospect that anti-Western Islamist forces could fill any power vacuum created by Assad's ouster.

The State Department on Tuesday designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, which is considered one of the most potent Syrian resistance factions. The news isn't too shocking considering U.S. intelligence Chief James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee back in February that suicide attacks and car bombs in Syria bore the hallmark of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

However, the move triggered an anti-American backlash in Syria, as 29 opposition groups called for mass demonstrations in support of the AQI offshoot. Free Syrian Army (FSA) officials estimate that Nusra Front fighters now account for up to nine percent of total rebel forces. The group is reportedly continuing to attract insurgents in need of money, weaponry and training, and has won admirers within the FSA itself who perceive the jihadists as more organized and skilled than their secular counterparts. Other critics say the designation will lend legitimacy to the Syrian regime. According to the Washington Post, even administration officials admit the move could bolster Assad's assertion that all of the rebels opposing his rule are "terrorists."

Yet, because of AQI's presence, the U.S. has been leery of arming the opposition. The FTO designation was chiefly designed to address this concern by depriving AQI of funding and driving a wedge between the extremists and the mainstream rebel movement. The label prohibits Americans from doing business with the group and freezes the Nusra Front's assets. However, the initiative could be rendered academic if the U.S. is unable to address the funding and weapons the group receives from Gulf States like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, conservative Sunni monarchies which apparently want Assad's Alawite regime dethroned at any and all costs.

Yet, there might be a sliver of hope. Last Friday in Turkey, U.S., European and Arab security officials collaborated in forming a unified opposition command comprised of hand-picked Syrian rebel leaders who will probably receive the bulk of military aid, part of an overall initiative to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

In similar situations in the past, military aid has been allocated to those who are very adept at killing, like extremists and warlords in Afghanistan and Libya. These strongmen are then rewarded with a disproportionate share of authority, out of expedience, thereby surrendering any beneficent gains derived from intervening in the first place. Hence, to avoid repeating these mistakes, and for lack of more viable options, the U.S. is stuck with the suboptimal solution of trying to identify and funnel money and ammo to non-jihadist actors that share the same battlefield with jihadist actors, as well as the same near-term goal.

Not only have U.S. military officials been hesitant to indiscriminately arm the opposition, they've also resisted direct military intervention, including launching airstrikes, enforcing no-fly zones and establishing "safe" corridors, due to the complexities posed by Syria's chemical weapons program and its formidable Russian-made air defense systems.

Meanwhile, during a gathering in Morocco on Wednesday the administration recognized a new group of political exiles called the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) as the legitimate alternative to the Assad regime. The coalition will supplant the Syrian National Council (SNC), which many believed was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and rife with infighting.

A primary reason the international community has been reluctant to intervene is the lack of credible alternatives to Assad, and the U.S. hopes this broader coalition will garner global support. Russia, for one, has been providing weapons to the Syrian government and has opposed UN Security Council sanctions because it doesn't want to see an Islamist-dominated government in Damascus.

Non-jihadist militant groups, the U.S. hopes, will be more willing to cooperate with the newly-formed political opposition to develop and implement a peaceful transition process and circumvent the outbreak of ethno-sectarian strife. Many fear, for example, that certain members of the Sunni majority might seek retribution against regime supporters, especially within the Alawite community, although other minority groups, including Christians, Druze and Kurds, are also deeply concerned.

Though the terrorist designation, arms non-proliferation measures and diplomatic rush might be too little, too late, something had to be done to stem the violence, arrest radicalization (or at least stop feeding it), and begin carving a path towards some semblance of security and rule of law. After all, one would hope the Syrians didn't suffer through decades of dictatorial rule and a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people to have one form of repression replaced by another.