I’ve been meaning for a few days now to write about the interview with a member of Jabhat al-Nusra (a Sunni extremist militia network in Syria) that has been widely published, including at The Economist. As I’ve discussed before, Syria is an almost unimaginably complex conflict that I often avoid discussing not because it’s largely unacknowledged (which are the sort of issues I actually try to cover here), but because it honestly seems not my place to comment on how intractable and disastrous the current situation is (and morally speaking how inaction seems monstrous but intervention seems barbaric).
Setting aside the complicated issue of intervention, treating this single member of one of the rebel forces as a voice that can be allowed to speak for the whole of the anti-government bloc in Syria seems strange. Even within the discussion by the young Syrian man, other religious factions (namely the Christians, Shia, and Alouites) are subjects to be broached later not actual players in the on-going conflict. The promotion of this single testimony to the whole of the Syrian opposition, and even more so, the whole of a hypothetical post-Assad Syria seems unmerited.
But equally importantly, to the extent that Jabhat al-Nusra is a thing at this given moment in the Syrian civil war, that loose organization has a context to its prominence and influence. As Al-Jazeera’s reported, the reasons behind Jabhat al-Nusra’s ascendancy have much more to do with the availability of weapons and other supplies than a congruence between their vision of a post-Assad Syria and that of the majority of Syrians.
There’s even those who allege that the international flows of weapons into Syria were deliberately designed to create a rebellion with a Sunni extremist front. The arguments behind that seem weak (namely that the US is motivated to create a force that it declares outside of the law… so that Syrian rebels can violate international law). More interesting is the prospect that Qatar is not a US stooge but rather independently acting to facilitate a Sunni hegemony like that which exists in the Arabian peninsula but in further northern areas.
(Saudi Arabia is the only state in the Arabian peninsula that specifies its state religion to be Sunni Islam, but its neighboring Islamic states other than Iraq often interpret the state religion to be decidedly Sunni in nature. Syria is another exception for the immediate region in that it doesn’t have a state religion – and barring an effective takeover by Jabhat al-Nusra, it won’t gain one. Iran is the final one in that it is decidedly Shia in its state religion.)
While it’s possible to perceive a US-backed effort to prop up Sunni extremists in Syria as a means of dismantling primarily Shia pro-Iranian sentiment, it seems quite reasonable to view this as a slightly regionally extended anti-Shia bias financed and supported by often radically Sunni individuals and states situated in the Arabian peninsula. As I’ve pointed to again and again, Syria is an incredibly complex conflict, but it seems worth asking if forces are at play with the intent to turn it into a Shia-Sunni conflict as a means of indirectly striking at Iran and pushing Sunni hegemony ever northward.