The Syrian revolt—and the U.S. role in it—just seem to get more confusing by the day.
The Muslim Brotherhood is fighting to oust the minority Alawite regime of the Bashar al-Assad clan. HAMAS, the Muslim Brotherhood's terrorist off-shoot that rules Gaza, joined the fight to topple Assad. And now it is reported that Al-Qaeda fighters are bolstering the ranks of the rebellion as well.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are all Sunni majority countries, and so it is understandable that they support the Muslim Brotherhood's battle to oust what many consider a bunch of heretics (the Alawites) from Damascus. Besides, Assad is allied with the Shi'ite mullahs' regime in Tehran that is perceived as a growing menace across the region. Al-Qa'eda and HAMAS are also Sunni outfits (even though both have acted in the past as Iranian terror allies). Sunni or Shi'a though, they all support jihad in the way of Allah to spread Islam, destroy Israel and enforce Islamic law (sharia). They just have different ideas about who should be in charge. When they fight each other like this, in civil strife within Islam, as Sunnis and Shi'ites have for centuries, it is called fitna. So far, so good. This much is clear.
Things begin to get murky, however, when trying to understand official U.S. policy towards these not-so-very-different players: Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Syria.
The U.S. Department of State released its 2011 Country Reports on Terrorism on July 28, 2012, and as in years past, declared Iran the leading state sponsor of terrorism and Al-Qaeda a leading terror threat to U.S. national security. Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, head of the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, noted with some concern at a press conference that day that, although Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is no more, Al-Qaeda affiliates have "increased their overall operational ability," including in places like Syria.
In fact, some of the Al-Qaeda fighters now joining the Syrian uprising are the same ones their former sponsor in Damascus supported against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq a few years ago.
Benjamin was quick to add, though, that "We believe that the number of Al-Qaeda fighters [and] Al-Qaeda-related fighters who are in Syria is relatively small…" (Does this remind anyone of the "flickers of Al-Qaeda" in Libya in early 2011? Of course, in the end, it was precisely Al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies who toppled Muammar Qaddafi and took over the country.)
In any case, Benjamin told reporterson that "We've spoken with the Syrian opposition groups and warned them against allowing such fighters to infiltrate their organizations. They've assured us that they are being vigilant and want nothing to do with AQ or with violent extremists. And I should add that the Free Syrian Army has issued several statements urging foreign fighters to leave Syria." OK, so that ought to take care of Al-Qaeda in Syria. They're bad actors, but the "good" rebels have the situation under control.
Except that the ranks of the anti-Assad rebels favored by the Obama administration, many of them organized under the Turkey-based Syrian National Council (SNC), are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Muslim Brotherhood is fighting for the same thing Al-Qaeda is: To spread Islam, destroy Israel and enforce sharia. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide, Muhammad Badi', actually declared war (jihad) against the U.S., Israel and Arab rulers in a late September 2010 sermon.
Upon his election, the new Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, wasted no time vowing to "liberate" Jerusalem, establish ties with Iran, and recite the Brotherhood motto:
"Allah is our Objective
Muhammad is our Prophet
The Quran is our Law
Jihad is our Way
And dying in the way of Allah is our highest aspiration"
He also promised to free Omar Abdel Rahman (the "Blind Sheikh"), who is serving a life sentence in U.S. federal prison for his role in Islamic terror plots against the World Trade Center and New York City landmarks.
But in spite of the obvious overlap between Al-Qaeda and Brotherhood objectives, the Obama administration is increasing aid to "the rebels," providing communications training and equipment plus "some intelligence support" "to help improve ... [rebel] combat effectiveness."
The New York Times reported in July 2012 that CIA operatives were in southern Turkey to help channel weapons across the border to Syrian opposition fighters, ostensibly to "help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups." But how to tell them apart?
The Muslim Brotherhood, already closely identified with the Syrian National Council (SNC), openly announced at the beginning of this month the formation of a new militia called "The Armed Men of the Muslim Brotherhood," whose stated objective is to "raise awareness for Islam and for jihad."
Two European journalists were kidnapped by rebel forces in Syria and held for a week during July 2012, during which time their captors talked about jihad and sharia and threatened them with death unless they converted to Islam. The kidnappers reportedly were all non-Syrians, but included many who spoke British English. They only let the journalists go when Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldiers arrived in their camp and ordered their release. The nature of the relationship between the kidnapper jihadis and the FSA fighters remains unclear.
Syrian Christians are terrified of what will happen to their small community when Assad, who protected them from Muslim oppression, goes down. Thousands already have fled their homes because they fear reprisals from their Muslim Brotherhood neighbors for having sought the Assad regime's protection over the last decades.
A graphic amateur video posted online on July 31, 2012, shows the brutal execution of a group of Assad supporters in Aleppo by rebels from the Free Syrian Army who chanted "Allahu Akbar" as they blasted the prisoners with automatic rifle fire.
Yet, it emerged in early August, 2012, that President Barack Obama had signed an Intelligence Finding authorizing U.S. support for Syrian rebels battling the Assad regime. In mid-July, 2012, the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) issued a waiver to the Syrian Support Group, permitting it to provide logistical and financial support to the Free Syrian Army -- the same FSA that has the relationship with the journalists' kidnappers, the same FSA that executed POWs to the rhythm of the jihadi war cry.
Here is a question journalists should ask at the next White House press conference: Why are Al-Qaeda rebels who fight for the purpose of jihad to spread Islam and defeat Bashar al-Assad "bad," while Muslim Brotherhood and other jihadis who fight to spread Islam and defeat Assad "good" and deserving of the full backing and support of the U.S. government?
If the reporter is allowed a follow-up question, here it is: Why don't Syrian Christians, Druze and Kurds who are not jihadis -- and do not want to see Islamic law enforced in Syria -- get that kind of support?