It was a terrible day last August in Aleppo; the regime forces had at last overrun Salheddine, a district smashed to bits with dead bodies lying under the rubble, which had nevertheless held through days of relentless shelling and airstrikes. Sleepless and disoriented a few of the revolutionary units pulled out; others, including the one I was with, stayed until later and then, fearful of being surrounded, left in what had turned into a general retreat.
The first to flee the frontline, by a considerable margin of time, were fighters from an Islamist Khatiba – battalion – who had become noted for the constant, loud declaration that Basher Al-Assad would be swept from power in weeks they if only there more true jihadists like them. We came across one of their vehicles, what had been a machine-gun mounted Nissan flatbed truck turned into a twisted and jagged piece of wreck by a missile, in one of the roads coming out of the district. Remains of three bodies lay at the back. A passing fighter, Hussein Ali Motassim, shrugged: “They were full of talk, talk about their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan; talk about bomb-making and IEDs (Improvised explosive devices); but you know, at the end, nothing.”
That was Jabhat al-Nusra then. Three months later back in Syria, I found they had grown enormously in numbers, had acquired by far the most weapons, also by far the most money. Eight months further on it was more powerful still; the biggest and best armed of the rebel groups; leading the major operations; proudly pledging public allegiance to al-Qa’ida; receiving allegiance from other khatibas of the loosely knit organization calling itself the Free Syrian Army.
For the two and half years that the Syrian uprising had been taking its bloody course, the West had failed to support the opposition with anything much more than rhetoric. In that time the Salafists, and Jabaht al-Nusra in particular, have received a steady stream of cash and weapons from backers in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. They have also had their pick of recruits keen to join up. A colleague reminded me of an old joke from Northern Ireland; "what do you call an unemployed Catholic kid with no education and no prospect?’ Answer: "a loser". "What do you call the same kid who now has an Armalite"? Answer: "You call him 'sir'" Al-Nusra has been the best providers of Kalashnikovs – the Middle East’s Armalites – and much else to young men who strut around swelled up with the power of the gun ordering people to behave in the ‘proper’ Muslim way and punish those who do not.
The West - Britain and France leading the clamour - now want to arm the rebels and the Obama administration, still desperately trying to avoid any direct intervention, may follow suite, although there is a possibility Washington may delay giving significant military aid after Secretary of State, John Kerry and Russian defence minister, Sergei Lavrov, agreed to hold a conference on the crisis.
The supplies would be sent to the supposedly ‘moderate’ groups, some of whom are also receiving military training in camps in Jordan and Turkey from private security contractors. But this is little, in reality, to do with their struggle against the regime. It is much more to do with preparation for the next chapter of the Syrian civil war when the rebels are pitted against each other. The ‘moderates’, with Western help, it is hoped, will take on Al-Nusra, prescribed as a terrorist organization by the US.
This will take place in earnest when Assad does go, as he will have to. But it is already taking place now in some of the areas controlled by the opposition; skirmishes, kidnappings, murders. Some of it is turf wars, some of it over proceeds of criminal enterprises, but some of it is due to fierce ideological and theocratic differences over the future of Syria, but, more immediately, the direction of the revolution.
Is sending military supplies the right thing to do? Possibly it is. The argument trotted out that you should not send more arms to a place awash with arms does not work if the weaponry already there is going overwhelmingly into the hands of the extremists, and we consider that a bad thing. The problem would be to ensure that whatever the West sends also does not end up in the same hands. We have seen al-Nusra fighters take away food sent in by aid agencies and, having kept what they wanted, distribute it in outlying villages saying it is from them; thus building up loyalty. What guarantee is there that does not happen with military supplies sent from Western Europe and America?
The only sure way to ensure that does not happen is to have Western boots on the ground. But if the interventionists hoped that tales of the regime using chemical weapons would panic the US into action, they are failing so far. Unlike the Cameron government, which is pushing the WMD case hard just as the Blair government did in the run up to the Iraq invasion, the Obama administration is being much more cautious. The ‘proof’ of such an attack by the regime, it points out, is at best, inconclusive, certainly not enough to go to war. The claim by Carla Del Ponte, of the UN commission of Inquiry, that the rebels themselves may have used Sarin is again based on very little evidence, but has managed to make the issue more convoluted and American military action less likely.
All this, and the impasse on the ground between the opposing forces means that the conference being arranged may result in some steps towards a ceasefire. At the Nato foreign ministers’ conference in Brussels last month both American and Russian officials told us that the Geneva Accord, which many members of the international community signed up to last year, is going to be resuscitated. Both Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov talked it up publicly, as did Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Alliance’s Secretary-General.
The Russians will bring pressure on President Assad and the Americans on the opposition Syrian National Congress to try and get a deal before scheduled elections in Syria next year. But even if there is a breakthrough, Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies have stated clearly that they will have no truck with negotiations; for them it is a jihad to the finish and those among the rebels who disagree with them are traitors and collaborators.
Back in Aleppo last summer, watching the Salafists drive around with their black flags with gold inscriptions, a rebel commander, Abdul Fawzi Hussein, said “We shall have to deal with them, fight them, in the future. But now our focus is on winning Aleppo first and then Damascus.” What has unfolded since then suggests that fight is likely to take place before either city falls, with the West involved by proxy in an internecine civil war.