There is more than meets the eye to the civil war raging in Syria. On the surface it is an armed conflict between forces of the Assad régime and a popular opposition bent on overthrowing it. However a variety of individuals and groups have flocked to the two banners, some with vested interests and agendas of their own, and some more set on destroying their own deadly rivals in the opposing camp than in the fate of Syria and its people.
“Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world,” said UK foreign minister, William Hague, on May 20, worried – as indeed are a number of European governments – at the effect on home-grown extremists of exposure to this ruthless intra-Islamist strife.
One crucial dividing line separates the protagonists – the fault line in Islam itself between Muslims of the Shia and those of the Sunni persuasion. The Assad régime represents the Alawite tradition of Shi’ite Islam. The Islamic Republic of Iran is solidly Shia, and so is the puppet organisation that it created in Lebanon, and that it funds and supports – Hezbollah. Assad’s recent modest successes against the rebels is due in no small measure to the 150,000-strong fighting force that Hezbollah, under instructions from Tehran, has thrown into the fight.
On the Sunni side of the battlefield are ranged the forces not only of the official opposition, but also of the jihadists, Islamists and extremists, including Al-Qaeda, seeking a long-term advantage out of the current chaos.
Al-Qaeda, in particular, has featured in the latest reports of in-fighting amongst supposedly united anti-Assad forces. Al-Qaeda seems set on replicating in Syria the carnage it orchestrated in post-Saddam Iraq. Al-Qaeda's leader, since the death of Osama bin Laden, is Ayman al-Zawahiri. He recently appointed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former head of the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq”, as head of a new merged organisation which they dub “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”
Baghdadi is reported to favor using intense violence to break down society in order to allow jihad to flourish. Proclaiming the need for an international caliphate, ending national borders, he must have seemed an ideal candidate to head an Al-Qaeda-led Sunni entity covering the whole of Iraq and Syria.
This active intervention by Al-Qaeda has paid dividends. The major militant jihadist group fighting the government in Syria is Jabhat al-Nusra. A successful fighting force, it has taken control of large rebel-held areas of northern Syria. But the group was infiltrated by hardline jihadists from Iraq, and they recently gained control of the organisation. Shortly afterwards Jabhat’s Syrian leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, publicly proclaimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
The result of his declaration was to split Jabhat al-Nusra in two, and troops unwilling to align themselves with Al-Qaeda are reported to have disowned their leader and withdrawn from the front line fighting the Assad régime in Aleppo. One report affirmed that recently an entire unit of 120 men left Jabhat al-Nusra to rejoin the biggest “official” brigade in Aleppo, Liwa Tawhid, a branch of the so-called “Free Syrian Army”. Many of the young men in Jabhat claim they are Syrians first and joined Jabhat simply to rid the country of President Bashar al-Assad. Such fighters would be uninterested in becoming embroiled in a struggle for power between Sunni and Shi’ite jihadists.
Meanwhile Jabhat fighters in the east of the country still loyal to al-Jolani are reported to have started calling themselves the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" on videos posted online – in accordance with instructions from the international Al-Qaeda leadership.
In short, alongside the conflict in which Assad is fighting to retain control of the levers of power in Syria, another battle is being waged for ultimate mastery of the country. On the one hand Shi’ite Iran, via Hezbollah, is desperately anxious to ensure that Syria remains in its sphere of interest – Mehdi Taaib, who heads the think tank of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently stated that “Syria is the 35th district of Iran.” Iran’s cover story for the young men from south Lebanon who have joined the Hezbollah contingent to support Assad – and for the grieving parents of those killed or wounded – is that they are fighting to defend their Shia religious beliefs, and that if Sunni extremists win in Syria, the next battle will take place in Lebanon itself.
On the other hand Al-Qaeda, in the interest of Sunni Islam, is seeking to establish an “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” on the ruins of a Syria they have devastated, just as Iraq was devastated after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is a grim prospect, and one the rest of the world must take fully into account before it starts arming one side or the other.
Unlike a fair proportion of the western world which is calling for the departure of Assad and the triumph of the Free Syrian Army – although none are yet prepared to commit themselves much beyond declarations of support – Israel has said that it favors neither side in the Syrian civil conflict. Its main concern is to prevent the Syrian government’s vast stocks of conventional and non-conventional weaponry falling into the hands of its Shi’ite Islamist allies – Iran or Hezbollah. Nevertheless, Israel must view the prospect of a post-Assad Syria in the hands of jihadists of any hue – Shi’ite or Sunni – with some concern. The best outcome for all concerned would be to establish some means of boosting the military capability of the Free Syrian Army while ensuring beyond a peradventure that its Islamist camp-followers and hangers-on do not get their hands on the weaponry. There may, unfortunately, be no guaranteed way of squaring that particular circle.
Published in the Jeruslaem Post on-line, 10 June 2013: