President Obama promised military aid to the Free Syrian Army in June, although apparently delivery has been held up by US congressional concerns about where the weapons would end up. The Free Syrian Army responded saying that the necessary safeguards are already in place and US weapons will not end up in the hands of Islamists such as the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. But yesterday USA Today ran an article pointing out that US weapons are ending up in the hands of Shi’ite pro-Assad militias, as well as being used by Jabhat al-Nusra (mentioned, but not emphasized, by the article).
Now, this is not necessarily a contradiction: the weapons currently being used by forces which the US government would prefer not to arm are likely hold-overs from previous US wars in the Middle East, such as the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan of the past decade. But it does reveal how little the US can control who gets US weapons once they are handed over.
Given earlier reports that the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra coordinate on the battlefield, and that soldiers fighting for the Free Syrian Army have defected to the better-equipped Jabhat al-Nusra, it is hard to regard the two rebel militant groups as fully distinct, however distinct their command structures are. Even if FSA commanders do not share weapons in advance of a coordinated battle, as they might be tempted to do in order to increase the likelihood of victory, it would be expected that common soldiers defecting from FSA to Jabhat al-Nusra would take their FSA-issued weapons with them. As Islamist assassinations of secularist commanders increase, such as today’s murder of Abu Bassel al-Ladkani, the weapons issued to FSA commanders may be seized by the Islamists. Thus the expected fate of US weapons shipped to Syria will be that they will turn up in future conflicts wherever black market salesmen can sell them.
The Guardian yesterday posted a detailed article discussing Jabhat al-Nusra and how it is running the territory under its control in eastern Syria. The “emir of gas” (the refinery manager) interviewed in the article was another example of an FSA soldier who defected to Jabhat al-Nusra, and he declares enmity not only against Jabhat al-Nusra but against the “apostate secularist state” which would be founded by the FSA in case they win. He speaks explicitly of a post-Assad war between jihadis like Jabhat al-Nusra and secularists in the FSA, as I also anticipate. Another commander of Jabhat al-Nusra spoke explicitly of the power struggle with the Islamic State of Iraq, the al-Qa’ida affiliate in neighboring Iraq which attempted to unilaterally annex Jabhat al-Nusra, leading to a rebuke from al-Qa’ida’s supreme leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The article paints a much broader picture of Jabhat al-Nusra than merely a fighting force, and shows the divergent Syrian viewpoints on the efficacy of the al-Qa’ida affiliated revolt.