Skip to main content

Syria: Why the worst-case scenario has prevailed

By Fahad Nazer, terrorism analyst, Special to CNN
December 17, 2013 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
A Syrian woman carries children following airstrikes on a rebel area of the war-torn city of Aleppo on December 15, 2013.
A Syrian woman carries children following airstrikes on a rebel area of the war-torn city of Aleppo on December 15, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Prospect of al Qaeda or other militants prevailing in Syria is a nightmare for West
  • But Fahad Nazer says for many Sunni Muslims, the nightmare is already here
  • Attacks on Sunni majority have turned Syria into favorite destination for militants: Nazer
  • Assad and al Qaeda are two ugly faces of same coin, he says -- both must go

Editor's note: Fahad Nazer is a terrorism analyst and former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- The "West" and the majority of the Muslim world appear to have divergent views on two things about the Syrian civil war: the centrality of the conflict and what constitutes the "worst case scenario." For the West, the prospect of al Qaeda or other Islamist militants prevailing is a nightmare. But for many Sunni Muslims, the nightmare is already here.

Two years ago, I cautioned that given Syria's religious, sectarian and ethnic cleavages, and the minority Alawite regime's preference for brutally suppressing the majority Sunni population rather than placating it by accommodating its Arab Spring-inspired demands for reform, the turmoil there could morph into a protracted war pitting a ruthless dictator against an armed insurrection that could be usurped by Islamist militants. That scenario come to fruition -- but that's not all.

The war in Syria has divided the Arab world, inflamed sectarianism across the Muslim world, revived al Qaeda and even turned into a juncture where the West and the Islamic world went in seemingly opposite directions.

Unless the international community recognizes the repercussions of this conflict and makes ending it its top priority, these fissures will continue to deepen, leaving many relationships in tatters and the international institutions mandated to maintain peace looking ineffectual.

In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
Syrian civil war in photos
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Syrian civil war in photos Syrian civil war in photos
Barrel bombs kill 83 in Syria air raid
Syrian refugees face snow, freezing temps
New threat to Syrian refugees

Faced with such a grim reality, the wide spectrum of players involved in the conflict will continue to resort to violence and to view the conflict through a zero-sum framework that will only add to the suffering of the beleaguered people of Syria.

More than 100,000 people have died in the conflict, which has turned millions more into refugees.

Assad's forces have had the temerity to capture their atrocities on camera, and these hours of gut-wrenching footage have proved a treasure-trove for al Qaeda and other Islamist militants.

They have capitalized on Assad's brutality to construct a Jihadist narrative that, unlike other places where Islamist militants had tried to establish a foothold, has resonated with many Muslims around the world.

The onslaught against the Sunni majority turned Syria into the favorite destination of militant Islamists worldwide. It has provided al Qaeda, which boasts not one but two affiliates there -- the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the al Nusra Front -- an opportunity to rebrand itself and given its recruitment efforts a shot in the arm.

While estimates vary, analysts agree that thousands of Muslims from places as varied as Kuwait, Chechnya, Morocco, Belgium, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, France, and even the U.S. have traveled to join the fighting in Syria, and the inflow is continuing.

Other individuals have donated thousands of dollars to support the armed opposition which, by all accounts, is slowly becoming dominated by Islamists of varying degrees of militancy.

As the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) continues to be plagued by internal divisions, it is the Islamists who are taking the fight to Assad. Some, especially the al Qaeda affiliates, have even attacked the FSA and driven them out of areas they fought long and hard to control.

While regional players like Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq and Hezbollah appear to be treating the conflict as a defining moment in the history of the region that could determine its political trajectory for years, the West, with the US at its helm, seems to be losing interest.

Even more worrisome for many in the Middle East, recent reports in the American media suggest U.S. officials are increasingly viewing the prospect of Islamist militants displacing Assad or controlling large swathes of Syrian territory as a "nightmarish" outcome.

Continuing carnage

But for many of the roughly 1.3 billion Muslims around the world, especially the majority Sunnis -- estimated to be around 85% -- exactly who ousts Assad is immaterial. If it is the Islamists, or even the terrorists of al Qaeda, then so be it.

To them, the nightmare is what's happening now; practically nothing could be worse.

Last week, 72 prominent Saudi clerics issued a statement calling on Muslims around the world to support a recently formed Islamist coalition in Syria known as the "Islamic Front." The good news is that the Front does not include the two al Qaeda affiliates, and the clerics did not call on Muslims to travel to Syria.

A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations. A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations.
Syria's refugee crisis
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Syria\'s refugee crisis Photos: Syria's refugee crisis
Syrian opposition group in disarray
UN requests aid for Syrian refugees
Should the West assist Syrian opposition?

However, the characterization of the conflict as a "Jihad," or holy war, is a troubling development, given that the Saudi government prohibited its Imams from delivering politically-charged sermons and that its highest religious authority issued an edict enjoining Saudis not to go to Syria, and that doing so would contravene the religious sanctions of Jihad.

While it's not surprising that the war is proving irresistible to hardened militants who have fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, it is disconcerting that it is also attracting recent converts to Islam from the West, underage boys who are traveling without their families' knowledge and even some women: the case of a Saudi woman who announced her triumphant arrival in Syria on Twitter last week sheds light on the powerful gravitation force of Syria amongst the religiously devout.

But it is not only the devout or the militant who are heeding the call. In one video, a militant Saudi who joined the fighting in Syria holds back tears as he proudly boasts that he has encountered "mujahideen" there who confided in him that they did not know how to pray.

In the minds of some Sunni Muslims around the world, the trepidation that the West is voicing over the prospect of Al Qaeda or other militant Islamists coming to power in Syria and the implications of such a scenario for religious and ethnic minorities is read as tacit acquiescence to what they see as a "genocide" -- a term the usually-reserved Saudi foreign minister has been using lately -- against their Sunni brethren. To them, the West is saying "better the Sunnis than the minority Christians, Alawites, Shia and Druze."

This perception has already led to a serious rift between Saudi Arabia -- the leader of the Sunni world -- and the U.S.

In a strongly-worded statement explaining why it was declining a coveted two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council a few weeks ago, Saudi Arabia cited the continuing carnage in Syria as one of the main reasons why it felt the international body was not fulfilling its mandate. It also accused the world of standing "idly" by.

These two divergent assessments must be reconciled. The truth is that Assad and al Qaeda are two ugly faces of the same coin.

The sooner the international community realizes that, the sooner the only viable option becomes clear: both of them have to go.

Read more: Polio threat stalks Syrian refugees in Lebanon
Read more: U.N. confirms use of chemical weapons in Syria
Read more: Islamic Front deals blow to Syria's rebel alliance

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fahad Nazer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0626 GMT (1426 HKT)
A year ago, 1,000 garment workers died in the collapse of Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. Here's a look at what has changed since then.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0453 GMT (1253 HKT)
Focus is on the fish as U.S. President starts tour with visit to legendary Tokyo restaurant.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Fireworks are fantastic and human endeavor has its place, but sometimes Mother Nature outshines any performance we can produce.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0306 GMT (1106 HKT)
In 1987, China sent its very first email. Here's what it said,
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0213 GMT (1013 HKT)
The world's new fastest elevator will fling you from earth to the 95th floor before you're done reading this article.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
In one U.S. state, a new bill will allow ordinary citizens to carry guns in all sorts of places. Does it make you feel safer?
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
In South Korea, volunteer divers are risking their lives to rescue victims of the sunken ferry.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1915 GMT (0315 HKT)
Park Jee Young, 22, helped passengers escape as the Sewol ferry sank -- giving out life jackets while refusing to wear one herself.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1643 GMT (0043 HKT)
What did outgoing manager David Moyes get wrong in his six months with English Premier League football team Manchester United?
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
In honor of Shakespeare's birthday, here are 15 of the world's most amazing theaters.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
CNN exclusive: Australian officials are hammering out a new agreement for widening the Flight 370 search area.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
Malaysian officials sent to brief Chinese families are armed with little to no information.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1545 GMT (2345 HKT)
When a team of Indian surgeons opened up the stomach of a 63-year-old man, they had no idea they'd extract a fortune.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 0701 GMT (1501 HKT)
Do these photos CNN of gun-toting men wearing green uniforms prove Russian forces are in eastern Ukraine?
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1711 GMT (0111 HKT)
If the Duchess wears it, then your fashion career is sorted for life.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Browse through images you don't always see on news reports from CNN teams around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT