Ever since the Syrian civil war erupted three years ago, the US has struggled to establish which among Bashar al-Assad’s opponents could be the west’s most credible partner. The person most often talked about is General Salim Idriss, leader of the Free Syrian Army. Widely described as a moderate, he and the FSA are in a fight to the death with the Damascus regime. They are also warring with the growing number of radical Islamists and jihadists fighting the Assads.
Last week Gen Idriss suffered a significant setback. On Friday the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist fighters, over-ran his headquarters in northern Syria and forced him to flee the country. They then took over warehouses containing non-lethal US military gear provided for the FSA. The US is now suspending the provision of non-military assistance to the moderate opposition for fear it will land in Islamist or jihadist hands.
The Syrian civil war has therefore entered a critical phase. The Financial Times has long argued that the best hope of ending the Syrian conflict would be for the US and its allies to transfer weapons in bulk to Gen Idriss and the so-called moderate opposition. The west could have tipped the balance away from the Assad regime. This, in turn, would have forced the regime and its Russian and Iranian protectors to negotiate a post-Assad transition, something they have steadfastly resisted.
Instead, the Obama administration, fearful of becoming embroiled in Syria, has refused to give the moderates the support they need. As a result, those fighting the Assads have flocked to jihadist groups and the Islamic Front, the latter well equipped with weapons from Saudi Arabia. The moderates around Gen Idriss, who might have formed the backbone of a credible western-backed opposition, are a diminished force.
The winner in all this is Mr Assad. He is not in a position to regain control of his devastated country. But he is now far more secure than he was a year ago. By agreeing in September to surrender most of his chemical weapons, he has been able to present himself as a legitimate interlocutor with the west. He can now declare that his opponents are comprised solely of Islamist extremists, enemies of the west as well as himself.
By contrast, the US finds itself with few, if any, diplomatic cards to play. Before next month’s international summit on Syria, the US might test whether the Islamic Front could possibly form a credible Syrian opposition. Parts of this group are too close to al-Qaeda, but contacts could be developed with some elements.
Many of those who lament the stalemate in Syria now blame the Obama administration. They argue that if the US had backed the moderate rebels 18 months ago, Syria would be in a far better place today. They claim that Mr Obama’s Syria policy reflects nothing more than a strategic determination not to become embroiled in a civil war.
Yet the US administration has not been totally disengaged from the region. It has secured an important achievement by getting an interim deal with Iran over its nuclear programme. This not only holds out the possibility of mitigating the region’s biggest security threat. Rapprochement with Iran also raises hopes that Tehran might reconsider its alliance with the Assads, which is hugely costly to Tehran in money and materiel.
An immediate Iranian shift on Syria may be too much to hope for. But Russia and Iran ought now to see clearly the price of leaving Mr Assad in power. Syria is becoming the redoubt of jihadist and radical Islamist forces who will ultimately threaten their own countries as much as they do the west. The longer Mr Assad stays in place, the greater the likelihood that Syria will become Afghanistan on the Mediterranean.
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