Syria's conflict is approaching a decisive phase, and the United States is making intense efforts to influence the shape of a post-Assad regime. Here, the prominence of Islamist groups among the rebels is becoming ever more important.
The pace of the conflict in Syria is accelerating. A series of military and political developments - reports that Bashar al-Assad's regime has fired Scud missiles at rebel-held areas, the encroachment of violence ever nearer to the centre of Damascus, and Russia's acknowledgment that a government defeat is possible - are in different ways signs that a decisive period may be approaching.
If the Scud reports are true, this is certainly an escalation in the conflict that began in 2011. Scuds are based on Soviet technology of the 1950s, are cumbersome to fire and highly inaccurate - but they carry substantial high-explosive warheads and can do serious damage if aimed towards large targets such as urban districts.
Syria's rebel forces have made some advances in the last weeks of 2012, though their extent and rebel units' ability to hold on to new areas is open to question. There is more clarity about the increasing role being played by Islamist elements within the insurgency, and here two decisions endorsed by Barack Obama's administration are significant: to recognise (along with its diplomatic partners in the "Friends of Syria") the legitimacy of the main rebel coalition, and to place one of several Islamist paramilitary groups operating in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front, on the list of foreign terrorist organisations.
These decisions reflect the fact that Washington and its allies are becoming preoccupied with a post-Assad era and the make-up of a successor regime. There is a growing perception that the Assad regime is now coming under serious pressure for the first time in nearly two years of conflict (see Michael R Gordon & Anne Barnard, “Syria rebels placed on U.S. terror list”, New York Times, 11 December 2012). A leading priority is to minimise or prevent any role for Islamist groups in the new Syria, perhaps the main reason for designating the Al-Nusra Front as terrorist. It is a predictable choice of action, but two factors on the ground make its impact anything but straightforward.
The first is that this group is but one of many that are motivated by varying degrees of Islamist thinking. Some, such as Al-Nusra, may include adherents that are very close to the al-Qaida worldview, and see Syria as a theatre of action with transnational as well as national implications; others are more focused on Syria alone (while perhaps, like the Muhajideen group that has fought alongside Al-Nusra, being sympathetic to the latter).
The second is that Al-Nusra and similar groups have proved to be particularly competent in waging war against the Assad regime. Their single-mindedness and strong religious motivation are important here: apart from anything else, a war-fervour with an eschatological dimension where even death in combat can be seen as a matter of faith puts boldness rather than caution at the forefront of their thinking.
Indeed, it has become clear in recent weeks that the dedication of Al-Nusra and its ideological affiliates has allowed them to play a disproportionate role in the Syrian conflict - as revealed by their ability to provide leadership to larger rebel formations. A dynamic is at work here where intense jihadism helps fuel effectiveness in battle and thus allowing such groups to assume a natural role of leadership, in turn ensuring that they receive much of the plentiful financial support from outside (mainly from western Gulf states).
Yet more than religion is involved in their rise to influence, for Al-Nusra and its sympathisers also have relevant military experience. It is hard to be quite sure about its source, but there are indications that at least part of it involves a crossover with young paramilitaries who fought against United States and coalition forces in Iraq from 2003-08. In addition to Iraqis themselves, many came from elsewhere in the region (not least Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Syria itself) to join the struggle. Now the roles are reversed and Iraqis are among those moving into Syria (see Tim Arango, Anne Barnard & Hwaida Said, “Qaeda allies play a lead role in Syria”, New York Times, 9 December 2012).
Washington's diplomatic recognition and terrorist designation aim to separate these radical elements from the main body of the rebels. In all probability, though, they are too embedded in the overall insurgency for this to be done. Moreover, their clear paramilitary capabilities mean they will be well placed to help ensure that, if and when the Assad regime falls, the aftermath will be an unstable and insecure Syria.
One consequence of the western-aided overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya was the exit of Tuareg mercenaries to Mali, where they established control over much of the country's north - only to be displaced by Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups. This example of an unanticpated “blowback” may well yet lead to western involvement in a war in Mali (see "Mali, preparing for war", 15 November 2012).
In Syria there is another form of blowback underway - this time a direct consequence of the Iraq war. It is likely to prove to be an immense complication in any western attempt to determine what happens in Syria if the Assad regime finally falls some time in 2013.