Who’s Turning Syria’s Civil War Into a Jihad?

The West, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia all have their own angles in the conflict—but Salafism and anarchy may be the big winners.

By Philip Giraldi February 28, 2013

Freedom House / Flickr

The tale of what is going on in Syria reads something like this: an insurgency active since March 2011 has been funded and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and allowed to operate out of Turkey with the sometimes active, but more often passive, connivance of a number of Western powers, including Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. The intention was to overthrow the admittedly dictatorial Bashar al-Assad quickly and replace him with a more representative government composed largely of Syrians-in-exile drawn from the expat communities in Europe and the United States. The largely ad hoc political organization that was the counterpart to the Free Syrian Army ultimately evolved into the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Syrian National Coalition) in November 2012, somewhat reminiscent of Ahmad Chalabi and the ill-starred Iraqi National Congress. As in the lead-up to regime change in Iraq, the exiles successfully exploited anti-Syrian sentiment among leading politicians in Washington and Europe while skillfully manipulating the media narrative to suggest that the al-Assad regime was engaging in widespread atrocities and threatening to destabilize its neighbors, most notably Lebanon. As in the case of Iraq, Syria’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was introduced into the indictment of al-Assad and cited as a regional threat.

If there was a model for what was planned for Syria it must have been the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or possibly the United Nations-endorsed armed intervention in Libya in 2010, both of which intended to replace dictatorial regimes with Western-style governments that would at least provide a simulacrum of accountable popular rule. But the planners must have anticipated a better outcome.

Both Libya and Iraq have become more destabilized than they were under their autocrats, a fact that appears to have escaped everyone’s notice. It did not take long for the wheels to fall off the bus in Syria as well. As in Iraq, the Syrian exiles had no real constituency within their homeland, which meant that the already somewhat organized resistance to al-Assad, consisting of the well-established Muslim Brotherhood and associated groups, came to the fore. Al-Assad, who somewhat credibly has described the rebels as terrorists supported by foreign governments, did not throw in the towel and leave.

The Turkish people, meanwhile, began to turn sour on a war which seemed endless, was creating a huge refugee and security problem as Kurdish terrorists mixed in with the refugees, and was increasingly taking on the shape of a new jihad as foreign volunteers began to assume responsibility for most of the fighting.

The proposed alternative government of the Syrian National Coalition was quickly recognized by Washington and the Europeans, primarily because it promised some kind of democratic and pluralistic future for Syria and control over the disparate and sometimes radical elements in the Free Syrian Army. The supporters of the rebellion in the West were willing to hold their collective noses and endorse the enterprise even though it was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists rather than by Western-educated liberals and other secularists. But the painstakingly arrived at distribution of power provided no real solution as the Coalition had no authority over most of the actual rebel combatants and little ability to enforce standards on the cadres who were fighting the Syrian Army in Aleppo and Damascus. Emphasizing its political divisions and also its essential powerlessness, on January 21, 2013 the Coalition was unable to agree on who might be part of a transitional government to run the areas controlled by the insurgents, largely because the Muslim Brotherhood was unwilling to cede authority to other groups. Since that time it has failed to agree on possible conditions for initiating peace negotiations with the al-Assad government.

There will be plenty of finger-pointing in Washington and in the European chanceries over what went wrong, but one issue that will probably not be confronted directly is the competing objectives of the various supporters of the insurgents, which should have been visible right from the beginning. The U.S. and the Europeans clearly envisioned some kind of humanitarian intervention which would lead to a new, more representative government, but that was not the goal of Turkey, which sought a pliable replacement regime that would clamp down on the activities of groups like the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Ankara’s primary geopolitical security concern.

Perhaps even more important, people in Washington should have also been asking why Saudi Arabia and Qatar wanted to overthrow al-Assad and what kind of government they had in mind to replace him. Saudi Arabia’s rival as regional hegemon, Iran, is viewed in Riyadh as ascendant due to the rise to power of a friendly Shia regime in Iraq as a result of the American invasion and regime change. This has permitted the development of a geographically contiguous Arab bloc closely tied to Tehran and its regional interests, running through Iraq, across Syria, and connecting with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. To break up that de facto coalition, the Saudis, who see Syria as the weak link in the chain, have sought to replace Assad’s Alawite-led government with a Sunni regime. But there is also a second agenda. Because the ruling minority Alawites are considered to be heretics similar to Shi’ites, a change in religious orientation would be necessary, with the Saudis serving as protectors of the Sunni majority. The Riyadh-backed Sunni regime would of course be expected to conform with the particularly Saudi view of proper religious deportment—the extremely conservative Wahhabism that prevails in the Kingdom, which is closer to the views of the more radical insurgents while hostile to the secularists. It would also make the country’s significant numbers of Christians, Alawites, Shi’ites, and Kurds potential victims of the arrangement.

All of which means that the Saudis and their allies Qatar believe in change in Syria, but on their own terms, and they actually oppose enabling a populist or democratic evolution. In fact, Riyadh has been actively engaged regionally in doing what it can to contain the unrest resulting from the Arab Spring so that the populism does not become untidy and spill over into Saudi Arabia itself. This has meant that from the beginning Saudi and Qatari objectives in Syria have differed from the goals of either Turkey or the Western powers, which should have been seen as a recipe for disaster.

And it gets even more complicated. In spite of their tendency to support religious groups rather than secular ones, Saudi Arabia and its ally Qatar view the Muslim Brotherhood’s “political Islam” as one of the divisive elements that has destabilized countries like Egypt, unleashing forces that could ultimately threaten the Saudis and Qataris themselves. As a result, working through their surrogates in Lebanon and in Turkey as well as in Jordan, they have systematically and deliberately starved most of the Free Syrian Army of money and weapons, instead diverting their assistance to the militant Jabhat al-Nusra, a Salafist group alleged to have links to al-Qaeda. Al-Nusra is generally regarded as the most effective insurgent group when it comes to fighting, but it advocates a strict Sunni religious state as part of a worldwide Caliphate under Sharia law when the fighting is concluded. It has also become a magnet for the foreign jihadis who have been drawn into the rebellion, an issue that has raised concerns in Washington because of the likelihood that any successor regime to al-Assad could easily be dominated by a well-armed and disciplined Salafist minority.

Ironically, the Saudis are acutely aware that aid to groups like al-Nusra could easily blowback and feed a new wave of jihadi-led violence—with al-Nusra playing a similar role to that of al-Qaeda after it cut its teeth in Afghanistan—but they are unfortunately locked into their own rhetoric regarding what is necessary to take down al-Assad and break the coalition of Arab states aligned with Iran. What it means for the other players in the tragedy is that Syria is de facto in a bloody civil war that is approaching stalemate, while the United States and Europeans have no good options and the Turks are increasingly playing damage control. If there is a solution to the conflict it is not readily discernible, and it is now doubtful whether some kind of resolution by force could be imposed even if Washington and the Europeans were inclined to do so, which they are not.

Syria is in danger of ceasing to exist as a nation-state. Its collapse could inspire a new global jihad and provoke violence throughout the Middle East, while its chemical weapons could easily fall into dangerous hands. Well-armed bands of the most radical of the insurgents taking the lead in the conflict without any political direction or control cannot be what anyone envisioned two years ago, but that is what has emerged, with the United States again looking on like a helpless giant.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.




24 Responses to Who’s Turning Syria’s Civil War Into a Jihad?

  1.  collin says:

    February 28, 2013 at 8:47 am

    I coming to sad conclusion that the Syria civil war is following the steps of the Lebanon civil war and turning into a Spaghetti (Italian) Western. What we have now a whole bunch of warring sides with guns that are fight until everybody is too exhausted to continue fighting.

  2.  Sean Gillhoolley says:

    February 28, 2013 at 9:09 am

    The problem with taking a hands-off approach to Syria is that we have no say in how things turn out. I am not so sure that we should care one way or another how it turns out. We dont do business with them, I doubt many of our people travel there for vacation, and they are not a direct threat to us. We can have an opinion, but shouldnt get too worked up over the outcome.

  3.  EliteCommInc. says:

    February 28, 2013 at 9:26 am

    If this article is accurate, this Admin. justified the case for the Iraq and Afghanistan Invasions.

    Regime change

    And it is folly. So we assist via the back door to overthrow President Assad and replace his government with those who have not lived the country for ten to twenty years.

    Hmmm . . . I think I have seen this game plan before.

  4.  John Thacker says:

    February 28, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    This article makes the Syrian civil war sound most like the Afghanistan revolt followed by civil war against the Soviets after their invasion.

    Of course, there limited US attention after the Soviets left meant that Saudi, Iranian, and Pakistani backed militias fought against one another. Instead of being exhausted, the ultimate winner decided that they still hated the USA.

  5.  Thomas O. Meehan says:

    February 28, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    The parallel that falls to mind is the Spanish Civil War in which various powers were willing to fight right down to the last Spaniard. Spain emerged from that civil war with a stable, non-interventionist regime under Franco but I doubt Syria will be so lucky.

    As to “It has also become a magnet for the foreign jihadis who have been drawn into the rebellion, an issue that has raised concerns in Washington because of the likelihood that any successor regime to al-Assad could easily be dominated by a well-armed and disciplined Salafist minority.” I can only say that this is an excellent opportunity for the West to discretely fund some vermin control. The more of these jihadis Assad kills the better off we all are. We should remember that our defeat of Communist subversion in the Europe of 1946-7 was made easier by the fact that so many leftist trouble makers were buried in Spain in 1936-8.

    One mystery remains. Why on earth are the neo-cons agitating for war with Assad? Surely Israel is better off with the relatively ineffective Assad regime than they would be under what would follow.

  6.  spite says:

    February 28, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    “Syria is in danger of ceasing to exist as a nation-state”. That is the problem right there, Syria never was a nation state, no different than Yugoslavia which could only be kept together by a Tito, so is the case with the Assads.

    If this author could go beyond his PC thinking, this simple fact would easily explain why Syria is facing such an intractable problem.

  7.  James Canning says:

    February 28, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    I feared the unrest in Syria would lead to a vicious civil war in which irreplaceable historical and archaeological treasures are destroyed.

    I thought the Saudis were promoting civil war in order to weaken Iran, due in part to Iran’s reckless decision to treble production of uranium enriched to 20 percent.

    I also thought “the West” blundered in Libya by making a negotiated resolution of the unrest more difficult. Same blunder has taken place with Syria.


  8.  James Canning says:

    February 28, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    Thomas O. Meehan – - Neocon warmongers want to hurt Iran, and they see the overthrow of Assad as achieving this object.

  9.  Jim Evans says:

    February 28, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    What is the percentage of foreign fighters? I hear various percentages thrown about, some over 50%.

    The Assad government conducted a constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections, as well (but that is studiously ignored by western press).

    Syria, in its current makeup, is an obstacle to western power & control. Humanitarian concerns have little to do with it.

    In 2007, Seymour Hersh had a New Yorker article, The Redirection, where U. S. government plans for the destabilization of Syria was reported.

    And, as reported by the present author, Mr. Giraldi, the United States has been significantly involved in facilitating weapons into Syria. What has happened presently is much like what Hersh reported was planned to happen in his 2007 New Yorker article.

    But obviously it didn’t go according to plan.

    Some analysts submit the United States is the spider in the center of the web, the prime mover, as far as Syria goes. Would Saudi Arabia act against a strong U. S. objection?

    Syria is potentially also a stepping stone to Iran.

    Israel is fine with balkanized neighbors who are weak (maybe a little more land can be taken down the road).

    There is no doubt the fighters use terrorist tactics of indiscriminate large scale bombing, summary execution, and infastructure destruction (including religous and historical sites).

    The U. S. vetoed a U. N. Security Council resolution submitted by Russia condemning last week’s Damascus bombing where over 50 died and hundreds were wounded. The U. S. wanted a condemnation focusing on Assad with passing reference to the Damascus bombing (subsequently the al-Nusra front claimed responsibility for the bombing).

    So, implicitly, the U. S. government is condoning terrorist acts of al Quaeda linked terror groups who are on the state department terrorist watch list.

    The U. S. government is condoning large-scale terrorism in Syria, plain and simple. It’s immoral. Is that what the U. S. has come to?

    It would be easy to turn off the weapons and terrorist supply into Syria, but it would take political will to change the inertia and an implicit aknowledgement of failure.

    That acknowledgement of failure might be the biggest political stumbling block of all.

  10.  Joe the Plutocrat says:

    February 28, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    very much a ‘devil you know vs. devil you don’t’ with the understanding that we pretty much ‘know’ both devils; we just don’t ‘know’ what Syria (or Iraq, Libyia, etc.) would be like with the latter. that said; I think the real question is not so much is it wise to back rebels; which inevitably invites or at the very least encourages/nurtures jihadists? rather; is it possible to anticipate the “jihad card” and somehow use it to serve our interests? even if “our interests” are best served by, as Michael Corleone observed (to Frank Pantangeli re: a turf war in NYC); “…do(ing) nothing…”. the truth is; many of these revolutions (Arab Spring movements, more than Iraq) are as genuine as the 13 colonies revolting against King George. at this point in our history; you would think we’d be pretty good at “playing” others, when the sad fact is; we seem to be the ones being played. no doubt the neocon enablers of the military-insustrial complex certainly act to server their interests, which is probably a good place to look for an answer.

  11.  niccolo and donkey says:

    February 28, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    The great debate that I’ve been having for years with friends on and offline is whether American foreign policy planners and officials are idealists or are actively assisting certain types of Sunni Islamist forces to fill the vacuum when secularist regimes are toppled (or being attacked, as in Syria’s case).

    We’ve seen the exodus of Christian communities and the rise of Sunni extremists in every one of these countries either invaded by the USA or that have been part of this “Arab Spring”.

    What do you guys think?

  12.  niccolo and donkey says:

    February 28, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Thomas O. Meehan asks:

    “One mystery remains. Why on earth are the neo-cons agitating for war with Assad? Surely Israel is better off with the relatively ineffective Assad regime than they would be under what would follow.”

    Israel was actually one of the last to get onside with regime change in Syria, long after the French, British and the GCC got the ball rolling. Many in Israel prefer Assad as “the devil you know”, but the plus side of a removal of the Ba’athist regime is that the route from Iran to Hezbollah is cut off, leaving them isolated and surrounded by the IDF and Sunni Islamist forces in Syria, with Sunni proxies in Lebanon itself.

    I guess that the Israelis did the calculus and figured that a degrading of Hezbollah supply routes is a livable option.

    No Sunni forces have been able to challenge the IDF in decades, but Hezbollah gave them a bloody nose and their entire foreign policy environment is clouded by Iran, Hezbollah’s sponsor.

  13.  Rossbach says:

    February 28, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    By what authority does the Washington regime use our nation’s money and prestige (what remains of it) to meddle in the internal affairs of Syria or any other country? This government is tottering on the edge of bankruptcy and does not even have control its own borders; and it’s trying to bring “stability” to a country halfway around the world. Incredible imbecility!

  14.  Scott McConnell says:

    February 28, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    Really the most comprehensive short analysis I’ve seen anywhere. Hard to believe though that it’s passing out of Turkey’s hands; it seems to me in terms of proximity, interest, toughness, Ankara should be the strongest actor.

  15.  H. Zigy says:

    February 28, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    Syria’s war is one of the most irrational and thus criminal Westren wars. Assad is way closer to an ideal/practical government than any future State would be. Assad government includes all factions of society, allows market, controls radicals and is less corrupt and more representative than US allies.

  16.  Wesley says:

    February 28, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    “Well-armed bands of the most radical of the insurgents taking the lead in the conflict without any political direction or control cannot be what anyone envisioned two years ago, but that is what has emerged, with the United States again looking on like a helpless giant.”

    Well this is partly the result of Obama’s policy of passivity and timidity in Syria. The CIA director, the Secretary of State, the Defense Secretary, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs all pushed and supported a plan to train and arm moderate, pro-Western rebel groups in Syria. But Obama unfortunately was too risk-averse and too worried about domestic politics to approve the plan. Obama’s policy carries at least as many risks as the alternative does. At least the Obama administration has now decided to send non-lethal aid to the armed rebel groups. Maybe weapons will come next. But with Kerry and Hagel at State and Defense, I’m not holding my breath.

  17.  EliteCommInc. says:

    February 28, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    I don’t think it is possible to segregate out the jihadists. Better to have the iissue resolved amongst themselves minus a US foot print

  18.  Escher says:

    February 28, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    The US is less dependent on middle Eastern oil than in the past, and this dependence will reduce further thanks to fracking and shale oil. As long as the navy has a secure base in Doha from which to control the Straits of Hormuz, the strategic interests of the country are secure.

  19.  Fran Macadam says:

    March 1, 2013 at 1:28 am

    One, it isn’t “terrorism” when it’s done by “our” sons of bitches. “Ours” is an increasingly loose definition.

    Chaos serves the purpose of weakening rivals for the politically focused, and driving up war equipment profits for the financially focused. There are no humanitarian considerations among either of those groups who make policy in our name.

  20.  James Canning says:

    March 1, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    niccolo and donkey – - And let’s remember that Turkey very nearly brokered a peace deal between Israel and Syria in 2008.

  21.  James Canning says:

    March 1, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Jim Evans – - Didn’t Obama intend to improve US relations with Syria, when he entered the White House?

  22.  Roarke's Drift says:

    March 1, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Scott McConnell wrote “Ankara should be the strongest actor”

    Yes, Phil thinks Turkey is “playing damage control”, but its military strength, self-interest and 500 mile shared border shuts down nearly all arguments as to who should (and will) take the lead in handling this among the various candidate state actors.

    God knows we could use a break from contemplating disasters resulting from our own blundering meddling.

  23.  TGGP says:

    March 2, 2013 at 12:38 am

    Kurds are an ethnic group, rather than a religious one (though the majority happen to be Sunni). I don’t see how they are clear losers if the Saudis are more influential. Maybe the variety of Sunni Islam they prefer isn’t Wahabbist, and in that case you should have made that explicit.


  24.  PeaceAndProsperity says:

    March 2, 2013 at 9:29 am

    I appreciate Mr. Giraldi’s invaluable contribution to shedding some true light on the war against Syria, especially in early stages of the conflict where his reporting on the influx of terrorists and weapons through Turkey and on their training there stood out from the deluge of vicious hypocritical, lying and outrageous war propaganda in the Western and GCC media.

    But it is beyond me why Mr.Giraldi is leaving out form his analysis two crucial issues:

    1) the pivotal change in regional energy security puzzle related to the world largest South PARS gas field shared by Iran and Qatar discovered in 2007

    2) the collapse of the oil-backed Petro-dollar also sustain mainly by the the US quest for full spectrum global dominance since the end of the Soviet Union.

    You cannot understand the whole picture without these two factors. To learn more read Thierry Meyssan et. al. at VoltairNet and Christof Lehmann et. al at NSNBC.me. Also Veterans Today is very informative with broad spectrum of perspectives on global and domestic issues.