The Good and Bad of Ahrar al-Sham

An al Qaeda–Linked Group Worth Befriending

Ahrar al-Sham trainees near Damascus, November 28, 2013.
Ahrar al-Sham trainees near Damascus, November 28, 2013. (Diaa Al-Din / Courtesy Reuters)

In his recent interview with The New Yorker, U.S. President Barack Obama drew a striking comparison between the Los Angeles Lakers and al Qaeda. “[I]f a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms,” he said, “that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Similarly, he went on to explain, there is a “distinction between the capacity and reach of [and Osama] bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

Obama’s quip drew harsh criticism from many on the political right, which accused him of trivializing terrorism. “It’s a flippant, arrogant, and ignorant comment,” said Oliver North, the former United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. Yet however politically attractive this argument might be, it is false on its face. As Obama hinted, it is a simple fact of life that not all terrorist organizations pose an equal threat to the United States and its allies.

This flap could not have been timelier. The al Qaeda of yesterday is gone. What is left is a collection of many different splinter organizations, some of which have their own -- and profoundly local -- agendas. The U.S. response to each should be, as Obama put it, “defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”

The implications of such an approach are far-reaching, but they need to be directly and immediately applied in Syria. Today, two different al Qaeda affiliates, the al-Nusra front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are battling each other in Syria’s Raqqa province. Perhaps Oliver North might argue that it is incumbent on the United States to take out both groups. But a more nuanced take would lead the president to ask key questions before taking precipitate action. Does the United States have a stake in the outcome of an intra­–al Qaeda struggle? Should it adopt a position of “A pox on both their houses”? Or is one affiliate less threatening than the other, and therefore worth ignoring for tactical reasons?

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