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Syria has gotten so crazy that America's allies are funding al-Qaeda on purpose

Nusra supporters in Aleppo, Syria.
Nusra supporters in Aleppo, Syria.
(Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Here is how crazy things have gotten in the international response to Syria: two pieces published in the past month, from the Wall Street Journal and the Independent, reported that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are working together to ship weapons and cash to Jaish al-Fatah, a rebel coalition. Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, is one of the key partners in the coalition. These allies know that their plan means arming al-Qaeda, and they're totally fine with that.

There's a sort of deranged logic at work here. The way these countries see it, there are three broad factions in the Syrian war: Bashar al-Assad's regime, ISIS, and a fractious, ideologically diverse group of rebels opposed to both of them. That last faction includes Jabhat al-Nusra, which sees ISIS as an upstart competitor to al-Qaeda and has chosen to partner with less extreme rebels.

The Saudi, Turkish, and Qatari governments see this rebel coalition as the least of three evils. Assad's regime is essentially an Iranian client, and these states see curtailing Iran's influence in the region as a top strategic priority. ISIS's sheer brutality and lightning expansion makes it seem like, in the short term, a bigger terrorist threat than al-Qaeda. So if you want Assad to lose, and you oppose ISIS, there's really only one option: arm the rebels. And in their view, the fact that al-Qaeda's fighters are the most effective rebels makes it worth the risk to arm them.

"The Turks, the Saudis and the Qataris have decided that the problem above all is to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, and the Americans don't have leverage over them to change what they are doing," Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, told the Journal.

This is a terrible idea — but it illustrates just how bad things have gotten

The problem with this logic is that it's insane. Jabhat al-Nusra is still al-Qaeda: just like ISIS, it wants to topple the region's governments and establish a caliphate run on a vicious interpretation of Islamic law in their place. The fact that Nusra can fight alongside more moderate Syrian rebels doesn't mean it's given up on its regional ambitions: it just means the group is more subtle about them.

"The willingness to believe that Nusra is somehow AQ-lite or 'not super jihadi' is crazy pants," Erin M. Simpson, CEO of the private research and consulting firm Caerus Associates, writes.

This strategy has a pretty clear track record. In the 1980s, the Saudis cultivated Osama bin Laden as an operative in their shadow war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Bin Laden's network grew stronger in part as a result of recruits radicalized during that war.

The most generous possible reading of that blunder is that at the time, no one could have anticipated what al-Qaeda would become. But today we know exactly what al-Qaeda is — and so do the Saudis, Turks, and Qataris. The fact that they're willing to supporting al-Qaeda, fully cognizant of the risk of blowback, illustrates just how terrible things have gotten in Syria, and how twisted the desperate logic of these participants really is.