Last summer, when the rebel offensive in Aleppo promised to wrest Syria’s largest and wealthiest city from Bashar al-Assad, Jabhat al-Nusra were relatively insignificant players.
Within six months, however, al-Nusra, proudly proclaiming its link with al-Qa’ida, had become the largest and most powerful organisation in the revolutionary ranks, well-funded and armed by backers in the Gulf. In contrast, the more secular groups were a fading influence. Receiving little support from the international community they saw the Islamists get the lion’s share of local and foreign recruits.
The push by David Cameron and François Hollande to send arms is supposed to rectify this. But will it work? One of the clichés trotted out is that “there are already enough weapons in Syria”. Well, not for the non-Salafist opposition there aren’t – and certainly not enough of the right kind.
The real issue is whether Western arms will get to the “moderates” or simply be taken over by the al-Nusra. The only way to keep weapons in the right hands would be through far greater Western involvement – in training, setting up command and control structures, and through covert presence inside Syria.
This could suck the West into the conflict; but then interventions in civil wars rarely have neat and tidy endings.