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Four Rival Factions Pick Over Syria's Bones

Jabhat al Nusra receives less media attention than the rival jihadi group, Islamic State.  Nusra has not declared the area it controls to be a sovereign state, much less a "caliphate.’  But in the longer term, it may well be Nusra that establishes itself as the key armed group representing Syria’s Sunni Arabs.  There are  number of signs that the smartest local players are seeing the situation in these terms.

Israel  turns a public blind eye to the prominent role played by Nusra among the rebels in south west Syria.  The Jewish state is determined to prevent either  the Assad regime/Iran/Hezbollah or the Islamic State from gaining a foothold along the border with the Golan Heights.

Privately, Israeli officials are well aware that there is no clear dividing line between Nusra and the rest of the rebellion in the southwest.  Indeed, Nusra is one of the most active elements when there is fighting to be done.

As a result, Israel has made its pragmatic peace with the presence of the jihadists.  Presumably, Israel sees no alternative to accepting their presence if it wishes to keep both the Iranians and IS from the border.  There are voices within the Israeli system that are well aware of the dangers lurking along this road. It is safe to assume that Israel will venture no further down it than it perceives to be absolutely necessary.  But it is testimony to the extent that Nusra has made its presence a fait accompli in the southwest of Syria no less than it is in the northwest, where it has just swallowed the hapless Hazm militia.

Walid Jumblatt, Druze leader in Lebanon, is a good figure to watch if you want to know the direction of the winds at any given moment in the Levant.   Jumblatt always knows to make his peace with rising forces, and to oppose weakening ones, in the classic survival strategy of his Druze people.

Five days ago, Jumblatt in an interview with a regional newspaper reiterated earlier statements according to which he does not consider Nusra to be a terrorist organization.  The latest reports suggest that he may also be negotiating with Nusra over the fate of a very small Druze community in northwest Syria.

What is the significance of all this?  It is the following.  As of today, there are four serious forces on the ground in Syria. They are the Iran/Hezbollah/Assad side, the Islamic State, the Kurds, and Jabhat al-Nusra.  What used to be Syria is divided between them.

This is the unpleasant reality to which prudent local players are adapting, after making their own careful calculation of their interests.

Bigger powers which could change this reality, meanwhile, appear to be flailing in every direction.  The U.S. "train and equip program," which aims to put 15,000 men in the field against the Islamic State over the next three years, is unlikely to make much of a difference to the picture.   Indeed, given the clear tendency among the rebels to favor Sunni Islamism, it seems quite likely that the U.S. is about to begin arming Sunni Islamists in Syria, even as it gives air support to their rival Shia Islamists in Iraq.

(Artwork created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)