Once again, the end seems near for the Assad regime, as rebels close in on Latakia and even Damascus. David Ignatius reports on the confusing endgame:
The rebel squeeze on Assad poses some vexing problems for the U.S., too. That’s because many of the recent battlefield gains have been made by jihadist groups the U.S. regards as extremist, such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Some officials fear that if Assad collapses, these extremist groups will rush to fill the vacuum — making the region even more unstable.
The U.S. refuses to work with Jabhat al-Nusra, regarding them as unrepentant al-Qaeda followers, even though the group is said to receive indirect support from Turkey and Qatar. American officials weren’t persuaded by an interview broadcast last week by Al Jazeera with Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, in which he offered conciliatory statements toward Syrian minority groups and said his fight isn’t with America.
Joulani didn’t disavow al-Qaeda, as some had hoped, which might have opened the way for a tactical alliance. U.S. experts continue to regard him as a dangerous foe and to warn against cooperation with his fighters. This complicates planning in the north, where the Nusra Front shares operations rooms in Idlib and Aleppo with Jaish al-Fatah.
The Islamic State has gained so much ground in Syria and Iraq recently that some Middle Eastern strategists argue for allying now with a lesser evil, the Nusra faction and other jihadists, to stop the Islamic State. The logic, explains one official, is “First you defeat Hitler, then you defeat Stalin.” Other analysts argue that the only good knockout punch is Turkish military intervention, backed by U.S. air support.
I’ve wondered since before 9/11, only half in jest if the Turks would be willing to take the place over again. And by “the place” I don’t just mean Syria — I mean all the old Ottoman lands in the Fertile Crescent and all the way through Mecca and down to Aden.
Of course the Turks don’t want the headache, and probably couldn’t afford it even if they did.
But it sure is tempting to have some outside power able keep a lid on the place, and we obviously don’t have the attention span or necessary cruelty for that unpleasant business — and the Turks seem happy enough to have been rid of it a century ago.