The Syrian conflict as it is currently playing out is characterized by several ironies. Here are two that immediately come to mind.
Bashar’s Al-Qaeda Flirtation Comes Back to Haunt Him
The Al-Qaeda inspired rebels currently leading the most effective opposition against Al-Assad are in many ways his own creation. During the US presence in neighboring Iraq in the mid-2000’s, Assad could not withstand the urge to needle the West and facilitate Iraq’s Al Qaeda insurgents in their cross-border attacks, even despite his own Alawite background. Clearly Bashar is now much regretting this bit of anti-Western chicanery.
One further interesting element in Assad’s Iraqi adventure is that it shows some of the oft-overlooked complexities of the Iranian-Syrian relationship. The Assad-backed Sunni insurgents of Iraq are the mortal foes of Iraq’s Shi’ite community, which, though also not unequivocally, generally enjoys Iranian support. As a consequence, Assad’s support for Iraq’s Sunnis can be seen to indicate that, while in general an Iranian ally, up until the current conflict Assad was also very clearly making Syria’s independent strategic calculations. Should Assad survive his current woes with Iranian help, clearly such maverick behavior can be expected to be a thing of the past.
Iraqi Jihad Comes Back to Haunt Syrian Sunnis
Just as much as Assad’s Iraqi involvement has come back to haunt him, however, the same goes for Syria’s Sunni community. There are two elements that should be highlighted here.
First it is the Syrian Sunni involvement in Iraq’s Jihadist insurgency that is in significant part responsible for the current Western abstention from military aid. After all, the recent appeals among Syria’s Sunni’s community for Western intervention evince some real chutzpah. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century these same Syrian Sunnis were among those who most loudly decried American ‘imperialism’ in Iraq, and who indeed produced a significant portion of the Jihadist violence that killed American citizens there. In Iraq, of course, the sides were reversed: the US supported a Shi’ite majority against a Sunni dictator. Now the shoe is on the other foot, with the majority Sunnis hoping to get rid of a Shi’ite dictator. But as Obama seems to be pointing out, unfortunately you can’t have your attitudes on American intervention both ways.
Second, and relatedly, it is often said that through its inaction the West bears responsibility for producing the current Al Qaeda domination of Syria’s rebellion. Now admittedly, clearly it is true that Syria’s revolution was previously largely peaceful, and that still today many Syrians just seek freedom and representation. However, the idea that Al-Qaeda is some foreign, recent introduction in Syria fostered by West inaction is pure fiction. As noted, just a few years ago the Sunnis of Syria’s East seemed to have no problem spawning and harboring Jihadists who would migrate across the border into Iraq to kill Shi’ites and Americans. Indeed in general we should be wary of the universally employed excuse among Arab nations that Jihadists in their midst are just ‘foreigners’. Somehow we faced ‘foreigners’ in all of Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and now in Syria. One wonders where is this wellspring of Jihad that all these ‘foreigners’ are native to.