Tangled web of fighters
from many countries
join sectarian battle
President Bashar Hafez al-Assad of Syria. Click image to enlarge.
THE ENORMOUSLY COMPLICATED “civil war” in Syria grew even more so this week with revelations that thousands of foreigners from several countries have joined the battle.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the conflict can no longer be seen purely as a civil war, and its effects are dramatically spilling over into neighboring countries.
The attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon on Tuesday was the most recent – but not the only – evidence that the Syrian conflict is morphing into a proxy war for sectarian interests with no clear leadership and multiple, often conflicting goals.
The situation increasingly defies any easy analysis making a resolution more difficult and more distant.
THE ATTACK ON the Iranian embassy was apparently carried out by a hitherto unknown group, according the story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz Al-Qaida-linked group claims responsibility for deadly Beirut attack.
“An Al-Qaida-linked group claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings that struck outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on Tuesday, killing 23 people, including an Iranian diplomat,” reported Jack Khoury on Nov. 19.
The story in Haaretz newspaper describing the attack on the Iranian embassy in Lebanon. Click image to enlarge.
“The obscure Abdullah Azzam Brigades said it carried out the midmorning bombings in a southern Beirut Hezbollah stronghold — the latest strike in the proxy battles that have played out in the region for decades and now intensified with the civil war next door in Syria.”
Expanding on the growing sectarian strife, the report added:
“Attacks have targeted Hezbollah strongholds in recent months in what many see as retaliation by Sunni extremists for the Shiite group’s role in the fighting in Syria, now in its third year.”
Hezbollah, backed by Iran, is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces against the mostly Sunni rebels seeking to topple him.
But Hezbollah is not the only foreign force involved in the Syrian conflict, as was reported Nov. 16 by Saudi Arabian network Al Arabaia in the story Expert: About 600 Saudi fighters are in Syria.
“An estimated 600 Saudis have joined al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria fighting against President Bashar’s al-Assad’s regime, a Saudi expert in Islamist movements told Al Arabiya … on Friday.
“Faris Bin Hizam said many Saudis are fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front.
“But the Saudi fighters are only a small number compared to other foreign nationalities fighting in Syria, Bin Hizam said.
“The ISIL is al-Qaeda’s main branch in Syria, although al-Qaeda Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri recently ordered its disbanding. He said al-Qaeda in Syria is to be represented only by the al-Nusra Front,” the report added.
The Al Aribaya story about Saudi fighters in Syria. Click image to enlarge.
The Saudis may indeed be only a small part of all fighters, as was made clear in The New York Times on Thursday in the story U.S. Says Dozens of Americans Have Sought to Join Rebels in Syria
“Dozens of Americans have traveled or tried to travel to Syria to fight with the rebels against the government of President Bashar al-Assad since 2011, American intelligence officials said Wednesday,” reported Eric Schmitt.
“The Americans are a small subset of the mostly radicalized young Muslims with Western passports who are entering Syria from Europe, North America and Australia, a group that numbers roughly 600, according to the officials and classified estimates from Western spy agencies.”
Most alarmingly, however, is the total number of foreigners thought now to be involved.
“That represents a fraction of the roughly 6,000 to 11,000 foreign fighters over all who have poured into Syria by way of the Middle East and North Africa,” Schmitt added.
THIS CAME JUST a few days after a Nov. 7 report in The Guardian in the U.K. of increasing Saudi involvement in the battle.
In the story Saudi Arabia to spend millions to train new rebel force Ian Black reports:
“Saudi Arabia is preparing to spend millions of dollars to arm and train thousands of Syrian fighters in a new national rebel force to help defeat Bashar al-Assad and act as a counterweight to increasingly powerful jihadi organizations.
The Guardian report that Saudi Arabia is spending millions to train fighters for Syria.
“Syrian, Arab and western sources say the intensifying Saudi effort is focused on Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam or JAI), created in late September by a union of 43 Syrian groups. It is being billed as a significant new player on the fragmented rebel scene.”
If you are not sufficiently confused, Black further explains the complexity:
“The force excludes al-Qaida affiliates such as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, but embraces more non-jihadi Islamist and Salafi units.”
What seems to be emerging is an alignment of combatants with either the Shiite regime in Iran or the Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, both of which have deep pockets and the willingness to spend vast sums to further their disparate goals.
A similar alignment has already emerged in neighboring Lebanon and also in Iraq, where sectarian clashes have made this the most violent year since 2008.
The Syrian battlefield is becoming a war-by-proxy between the region’s two most powerful players, and it is threatening to engulf all the countries in the region.
This is an ominous development. It certainly does not bode well for any kind of negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict any time soon.
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