De Facto Allies in Syria's Civil War: Obama, McCain, al-Qaida

Terence P. Jeffrey | June 19, 2013 | 4:43am EDT
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President Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain and al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri now share a common goal: They support Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow Bashar Assad.

Zawahiri announced his support for the Syrian rebels last year in an online video.

"I appeal to every Muslim and every noble, free man in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to come to support his brothers in Syria with all that he possesses with himself, his wealth, his opinion and information," said the al-Qaida leader.

"With the increased criminality of the secular, sectarian, Ba'ath regime, our audacious, brave, Mujahid people are each day becoming steadier, more patient, more resistant and braver," Zawahiri said.

"Do not rely on the West and Turkey who have dealt, negotiated and associated with this system for decades," Zawahiri warned supporters of the rebellion. "All of these do not want a free, strong and independent Muslim Syria that is waging jihad against Israel. They want a Syria that is subordinate and vulnerable and separated from its religion, heritage, history and glory."

McCain also advocates supporting the Syrian rebels.

"We could use our stand-off weapons such as cruise missiles to target Assad's aircraft and ballistic missile launchers on the ground," McCain said in a recent speech at the Brookings Institution. "We could enable a provisional government to establish itself in a safe zone in Syria that we could help to protect with patriot missiles. And we could organize a full-scale operation to train and equip Syrian opposition forces."

President Obama, who has been calling for Assad's removal for two years, has now announced that the United States will provide the rebels with military aid.

"The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition that will involve providing direct support to the SMC [the rebels' Supreme Military Command Council]," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on June 13. "That includes military support."

Why did al-Qaida's Zawahiri insist on calling Assad's regime both "secular" and "sectarian"?

The minority Alawite (or Nusayri) sect, to which the Assad family belongs, dominates Syria's government and military. Alawites have an interest in maintaining a secular state because their own denomination, an offshoot of Twelver Shiite Islam, departs significantly from Islamic orthodoxy.

In his Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law — originally published in 1910 and more recently published by the Princeton University Press — scholar Ignaz Goldziher described the Nusayri sect. "In their Twelver cult unmistakably pagan conceptions predominate," he wrote.

"In the course of their development" said Goldziher, "they also incorporated several Christian elements, as for example the consecration of bread and wine, a kind of communion and the celebration of feast days proper to Christianity."

On April 22, the Congressional Research Service published a report on the Syrian civil war that cited the United Nations Human Rights Council Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. "The report attributes war crimes to both government and opposition forces," said CRS.

"These crimes have intensified as Syria's civil war has taken on an increasingly sectarian dimension," said CRS. "In many areas, Alawite-led security forces and allied militia such as Jaysh al Sha'bi (Popular Army) are engaged in combat with predominantly Sunni rebel militias. Some of these militias are becoming more radicalized and aligned with extremists groups such as Ahrar al-Sham (the Free Ones of the Levant) or the Nusra Front."

The Nusra Front is a Syrian affiliate of al-Qaida. When the Obama administration correctly named it a terrorist group, Syrian rebel leaders objected.

"In December 2012, the Obama administration designated the Nusra Front as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and as an alias of al-Qaida in Iraq," said CRS. "Reactions from some Syrian opposition leaders and armed groups were negative. Several armed groups made statements of solidarity with al-Nusra, and prominent civilian figures, including then-President [Ahmed] Khateeb of the SOC [Syrian Opposition Coalition], requested that the U.S. government reconsider the designation."

The administration maintained the designation but will now arm some of the Nusra Front's brothers in arms.

Why do Obama, McCain and Zawahiri all support the same rebellion? Obama and McCain clearly hope that once the Assad regime has been swept away, the U.S. government can somehow foster a secular, democratic, pro-Western government in that country. Zawahiri presumably sees the Nusra Front and other Islamists fighting against Assad as the latest manifestations of the revolutionary Sunni radicalism sweeping the Middle East.

Looking at recent experiences in Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya, who is more likely to win the bet they are placing on the Syrian rebellion? McCain and Obama? Or the terrorist group that hijacked four American airliners on Sept. 11, 2001 and flew them into the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

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