Two years into Syria's civil war, and the tables have turned, the Syrian government is collapsing, and President Bashar al Assad has been reduced to a warlord. The rebels continue to make substantial gains, but they are having a hard time unifying. And even though al Assad's forces still control a sizable portion of the country, they probably will not retake the country entirely. More likely, Syria will face a similar fate as Lebanon, where various factions struggle to govern the country, after an eventual rebel victory. The problematic news that becomes evident is that even if the al Assad regime is removed and replaced, additional unrest and insurgency is to be expected.
The Jihadist Card
At the beginning of the uprising in Syria, the opposition's fighters were mostly defected Syrian army soldiers and Syrian citizens. But as the rebel movement grew in size and intensity, reports emerged of fighters from Libya, Tunisia and other North African states joining the fight against the regime of President Bashar al Assad. Despite the influx of North African fighters, however, the opposition remained poorly armed and displayed no clear and organized command structure.
By the end of 2011, it became evident that Syrian citizens, army defectors and North African fighters were not alone in battling the regime. Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist faction, claimed a Dec. 23 double vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack on Syria's Office of the Security Directorate in Damascus -- the opposition's first major blow against hardened security infrastructure. Since that time, Islamist and Salafist jihadists have been trickling into Syria from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan. Even with the removal of the al Assad regime, elements of the growing and increasingly diverse rebel movement, especially the jihadists, can be expected to sustain an insurgency that will have spillover effects in the region.
In this context the USA made it clear that Jabhat al-Nusra is designated a foreign terrorist organization, whereby the question is what capabilities Washington has to distinguish the group from other rebel factions. Plus 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. By some considered “a third force” the following entry lists a number of articles and theories describing where and how the Jabhat al Nusra came from.
However, it 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 law once President Bashar al Assad is removed. Nonetheless, the group has unmistakably emerged as one of the major players on the Syrian battlefield.
And this 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.