The seemingly interminable conflict in Syria has led to some peculiar alliances. In the most recent development, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani arm of the Taliban, announced that they have joined the conflict. This means that the Syrian rebels (who are, themselves, divided into nine to 11 different groups), several Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, the Pakistani Taliban, and the United States are now on the same side in the conflict. The divisions between fighting groups point toward an aggravation and exacerbation of the conflict, and make any desirable solution or cessation of fighting seem impossible.
The Syrian rebels, alone, are extremely divided. Other than their mutual hostility towards the Assad regime, these groups have almost nothing in common. They do not agree on religious ideology, on political ideology, or on what a post-Assad Syria will look like. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the most effective and well-armed groups of the opposition, Al-Nusra, has openly declared its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and recently, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been recruiting defectors from the Free Syrian Army, another main opposition group.
With the United States providing arms to the Syrian rebels, disastrous consequences seem to be taking shape. First, if Assad should fall, the divisions between Syrian rebels groups, coupled with pressures from foreign backers, leave little possibility of a cohesive government taking shape. Second, there is every likelihood that an even bloodier civil war between the well-armed rebel groups will ensue, and put one of the Islamic extremist groups in power. (One is almost reminded of the events in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, in which a civil war between the numerous mujahideen groups followed the fall of the Najibullah government).
Finally, in the fog of war, there is little guarantee that U.S. arms will not eventually find their way to extremist groups. The announcement by the Pakistani Taliban further complicates the picture on the ground in Syria, where rivalries between the Free Syrian Army and the Islamists were already coming to a boil. The Islamists are operating a smaller, more effective force that now controls most of the rebel-held parts of northern Syria, leading to tensions in the region; on Thursday, an Al-Qaeda-linked militant group assassinated one of the Free Syrian Army’s top commanders after a dispute in the port city of Latakia.
Many, including myself, who have long argued against the United States arming the Syrian rebels and getting involved in a conflict that seems to have no end in sight, have done so because the prospect of the Syrian opposition winning does not seem to bring with it any guarantee of peace, any desirable final solution, or any stable government – let alone a democracy.
Which is not to say that the rebels are likely to win. Assad’s forces have been doing fairly well on the ground recently. Backing from Shiite fighters from Hezbollah and Iran has helped the regime make gains on the Syrian battlefield, including a victory last month in the central Syrian town of Qusayr, which was a substantial gain for Assad’s forces.
For now, the Syrian quagmire seems to have no easy solution, but only further exacerbation, with foreign powers meddling from all sides. Once again, the United States might find itself trapped (if it isn’t already) between the reality of the Middle East’s chaotic politics, and the assorted fantasies that occasionally drive American and European foreign policy.