As soon as the United States and Russia reached a diplomatic agreement regarding the Syrian crisis, deciding to disarm the Syrian regime of all chemical weapons and postpone the military option, Ayman Al-Zawahri (Al-Qaeda’s number one post-bin Laden) issued a warning to his fellow jihadists, urging them not to fight for or ally with the other Syrian rebels who receive aid and weaponry from the West and Arab Gulf states. Calling the other rebels “moderates” and “secularists”, he declared:
“I warn my brothers and people in the Syria of unity and jihad against coming close to any of these groups”
Al-Zawahri’s announcement comes a week after the CIA made a decision to arm the Syrian rebels with non-American made weapons via Jordan in order to help the opposition with their two year-long continuous fight against the Syrian Alawite dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The sudden decision provides an excellent opportunity for the west and international community to intervene. Many Americans and citizens from other Western powers which previously announced their support to the Syrian opposition were afraid that supporting rebels with weaponry might end up instead supporting Al-Qaeda or other extremists, repeating mistakes of the 1980s when the CIA armed jihadists groups to fight against the Soviet Union.
Shortly after Al-Zawahri’s announcement, armed Islamist rebels were engaged in fierce battle against the Syrian Free Army – the group of moderates which receives non-lethal support from the United States.
The split within the rebels groups made the situation even more complicated as it is now a civil war within a civil war. Rebels fighting the government and their militias while also fighting other rebels because of differences in ideology. If the conflict between the rebels continues to widen, an international intervention to support the Free Army might be a necessary and wise decision with the purpose of weakening both the dictator’s regime and the extremists’ groups.
Within these bloody, violent couple of years, many Islamic extremists from all over the world have taken advantage of the chaos and instability, leading the wave of rising sectarian hatred among Muslims in the Middle East to establish an extremist base in Iraq and Syria. Al-Qaeda’s group united under one large armed militia called The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, which consists of fighters from Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Al-Qaeda in Syria, that was created to focus on removing the Iranian-backed president and to take over the revolution from the western-backed secularists.
Business Insider published a graph which illustrates the Syrian opposition’s groups in numbers, goals, and ideologies, describing it as the “most accurate breakdown of the Syrian rebels.” The graph shows the Syrian Free Army as the most moderate form of opposition, and with approximately 31,000 fighters, they represent 31 percent of all rebels.
While the current Syrian crisis started as a part of the Arab Spring wave of protests and revolutions against dictators, Syria’s revolution turned to be a violent civil war. The vast majority of rebels are Sunni-Muslim, while the government is controlled by the Alawite (part of the Shia sect in Islam). Foreign influence is also a major key in Syria’s war, as Iran – the only Shia Muslim country in the world – is allied with Hezbollah and the Shia-Lebanese militia, both of whom share in disagreement with US foreign policy and hostility against Israel’s existence. Both backed and supported al-Assad’s regime with weapons and fighters to empower the Shia’s influence in the region.
Meanwhile, Russia is strongly and openly supporting al-Assad both militarily and politically by blocking three UN resolution drafts regarding the Syrian crisis. In the meantime, the two wealthy and influential Sunni states, along with US strong allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, backed the rebels in their fight for the sake of repulsing Iran’s and Shia’s growing influence.
In one way or another, the Syrian crisis can be summed up as a battlefront for Sunni-Shia’s 1,400 year conflicts and also as an opportunity for Russia to establish a strong ally in the Middle East to repels the US interests and influence in the region.