THE BLOG
04/12/2013 08:43 am ET Updated Jun 12, 2013

Syria, Rebels, Al-Qaeda and the West

The recent announcement by an Iraqi Al-Qaeda group about a merger with the pro Al-Qaeda Syrian Jabhat Al-Nusrar (the victory front), has refueled both the debate about Western intervention or lack thereof in the Syrian civil war, as well as the discussion about what Syria in the post-Assad era will look like.

To start with, those who follow the modern political history of Syria and Iraq cannot but note, that the rivalry between these two countries has been a constant feature of the post-independence era. Many reasons for this state of affairs, but the fact is that even under the rule of the same Ba'th party in both states, Damascus and Baghdad were competing centers of power in the Fertile Crescent. The former almost always was in a position of inferiority. This is, in fact, a historic rivalry dating back to the early history of Islam, when after 90 years of Ummayid control in Damascus, the center of Islam shifted to Abbassid control in Baghdad for five centuries.

This is not to say that Iraqis and Syrians cannot cooperate behind a common political/ideological umbrella, just to put it all in perspective. It is highly inconceivable that even after Assad's fall, any meaningful Syrian political faction will be ready to succumb to Iraqi domination. So, the question is what's behind the latest Islamist Iraqi-Syrian newly-established union? The answer is the Sunni-Shi'ite schism which runs across what is left of the Arab Spring. The current Iraqi Shi'ite regime is the only Arab government which supports the pariah Assad Alawite regime in Syria, alongside Shi'ite militias in Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Hezbollah of Lebanon. Pure and simple, it is a sectarian war in which Sunnis support the Syrian rebels and Shi'ites support the regime. No wonder then that Sunni militants in Iraq, the most sworn enemies of Al-Maliki's government, merge with their ideological counterparts in Syria with the hope that an Islamist regime in Damascus will be helpful to them in their Jihad against the Shi'ites in Baghdad.

This is an understandable expectation, though, judging by history, as noted above, Syrians and Iraqis find it very hard to cooperate for too long. The Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda is far bigger than Al-Nusra and will naturally try to use them for its advantage. It may work against the Assad regime, but once this regime will be out of Damascus, the Syrians will have their own struggles to fight, not necessarily these of the Iraqis. A hint as to their priorities can be seen by the name of their leader, Abu Muhammad Al Julani [Abu Muhammad from the Golan]. Whether this is the real name of the unknown leader is not so important. More important is the fact that the Islamists in Syria view the liberation of the Golan as one of their main goals.

Clearly, Iraqi Al-Qaeda wants the Golan back under Syrian-Islamic control, but they want much more -- to see Baghdad back under Iraqi-Sunni control -- and that means that the strategic vision of the Iraqi and Syrian branches of Al-Qaeda is not the same. The focus of Al-Nusra on the Golan is surely a source of concern for the Israelis and Jordanians, and both countries are already taking steps to deal with an active, hostile border with Syria, contrary to what it was for so many years under the Assads in Damascus. Still, this potential problem is relatively mute when put in the overall context of what will happen in Syria after the final fall of Bashar Assad. And that brings us back to the role of the Islamists in Syria of the future. It is not so much the fragile merger with the Iraqis; rather, it is the fact that it provides us with another explanation as to why the Western world in general, and the U.S. in particular, are so reluctant to move from covert help to the Syrian rebels to an all-out overt one. The same applies also to the reserve shown by Turkey.

All of them are genuinely worried that the new Syria may be ruled by the militant Islamists, a force which will not be able to stabilize Syria internally, but at the same time will destabilize the situation with regard to neighboring countries. This is a legitimate concern, but somewhat inflated. Al-Nusra is still the smaller among the main anti-Assad factions, in terms of their military power, as well as the measure of popular support they gain from the Sunni population. This is so, among other reasons, due to the fact that the Sunni population in some areas already controlled by Al-Nusra reacts negatively to attempts to impose a strict Islamic way of life there. It has to be understood that the population does not want an Alawite regime, considered heretic, non-Islamic, but not necessarily wish it to be replaced by fanatic Sunnis. For most Sunnis, a Sunni government in Damascus is the goal, not an Al-Qaeda one.

The success of Al-Nusra is not the success of the Al-Qaeda ideology, rather it is attributable to the tactics used by them, particularly the suicide attacks in Damascus, for example the one which eliminated some of Assad's inner circle. More importantly, Al-Nusra thrives as a result of the lack of all-out Western support to the rebels. This is the catch-22 syndrome of the West and Turkey. They are afraid of the Islamists, so they do not provide enough help for the Free Syrian Army [FSA], thus enabling the Islamists to enter the vacuum and increase their influence.

It follows that after 80,000 casualties, and with the Assad regime desperately fighting in its own capital city, the U.S. and its allies should shift gear and increase significantly their support to the main rebel group, the FSA. Today, after two years, the U.S. should know enough about the identity of who fights in Syria in order to help those who can be expected to play a more constructive role than the Islamists, Al-Nusra and others. A failure to do so just plays to the hands of exactly these people.