(MintPress)— Over 4,000 US troops were killed as a result of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, many of whom died as a result of the radical Sunni insurgency along Iraq’s Western border with Syria. So far, the same rebels that killed American soldiers in Iraq have killed almost 2,000 Syrian troops as well.
Syrian rebels are fighting for freedom from the the repressive regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Yet, the Saudi-backed insurgents along the Syria-Iraq border, a known safe haven for Islamic extremists, seem to have a different agenda in mind.
Defining the Syrian Opposition Movement
There are two main opposition groups in Syria: The National Coordination Committee (NCC) and the Syrian National Council (SNC). The NCC, headed by Hussein Abdel Azim, is comprised of various left-leaning political parties, independent political and Kurdish activists, and a group of youth activists. NCC advocates peaceful dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad as a means of transitioning into a Syrian democracy.
By contrast, the SNC does not support direct dialogue with Assad except to discuss the degeneration of Assad’s powers. The SNC operates the Free Syria Army, comprised mainly of defected Syrian soldiers, and is seen by most in the international community as Syria’s government in exile.
Membership in the SNC comes from individual activists and several major Syrian political organizations including the Assyrian Democratic Organization, the Kurdish Future Movement Party, the Damascus Declaration Group, and the exiled wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to Randa Slim, adjunct research fellow at the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute, “The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood…has now become one of the three major political factions inside the SNC.”
Members of the NCC are concerned that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in the SNC could radicalize the uprising and install a strict Salafi Islamist regime in place of Assad. Some protesters believe the NCC should join with the SNC to create a more solidified opposition movement to balance out the influence of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Ramy Jarrah, a protester who recently fled Syria, told The Daily Star in Lebanon, “the fear of [radical] Islam should give them a reason to join. We have these worries as well. But don’t just sit there and say ‘this is wrong.’ It’s only wrong because they’re allowing it to happen. If they joined the SNC they could influence it.”
Understanding the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria
Prem Shankar Jha, senior journalist at India’s Tehelka magazine, reported that, “while a demand for democratic reform is still embedded within the protests, it has been overwhelmed by a carefully programmed Islamist upsurge that is led by the Muslim Brotherhood, but almost certainly includes Salafi elements.”
Unlike the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which advocates a moderate Islamic democracy, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood follows strict Salafi principles similar to those that are advocated by the Taliban.
Salafism, often referred to as Wahhabism, is a Sunni branch of Islam that adheres to a strict, literal interpretation of the Qur’an. Salafism came to dominate Saudi Arabian religious and political thought in the 18th century when the British employed Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to spread Salafism throughout the region and overthrow the Ottoman Empire.
In 1744, the Al Saud family forged a political and religious alliance with Mohammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab that protected Wahhab’s austere form of Islam in return for financing of the Al Saud’s political legitimacy; this alliance is still in existence today.
Salafi Islam is the main ideology behind several terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabbab, and the Taliban. Salafi Islamist elements have become a part of the Syrian uprising through influence from members of the Muslim Brotherhood living within the country and in exile in places like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Finding the Source of Support
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria claims to support peaceful protests, shun sectarianism, and exercise international pressure to force the Syrian regime to step down and be held accountable for crimes committed against the people.
The international pressure the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood refers to may not necessarily be peaceful though. Although there is not currently an Al-Qaeda branch based in Syria, radical Al-Qeada cleric, Mohammad Omar Bakri, told the Daily Telegraph this week that Al-Qaeda and other hard-line Salafi Muslim groups are ready to stage a series of suicide attacks against the Syrian regime in support of their ‘Muslim brothers.’
The majority of support for Salafi rebels in Syria, however, comes from Saudi Arabia due to its interests in balancing the power of Iran. Syria is one of Iran’s main allies in the Middle East and provides easy transfer of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia is concerned by the Iran-backed uprisings of Shia minorities within its own borders and in Qatar, Yemen, Iraq, and other allied nations. By toppling Assad and establishing a Salafi-based government in Syria, Saudi Arabia hopes to quash protests that threaten its regional power.
According to Professor Michel Chossudovsky, President and Director of the Centre for Research on Globalization,
Saudi Arabia is providing military weapons and financial support to Syrian rebels just as was done in Libya and previously Iraq.
Chossudovsky also suggests that NATO and Turkish forces are considering the recruitment of “freedom fighters,” similar to that of the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, to fight alongside the Syrian rebels. This has already occurred in Libya.
Broader Implications for the United States
Phil Sands of the National, reported that, “Cross-border tribal connections meant that, for much of the US-led war in Iraq, smuggling of weapons and fighters from Syria was a major complaint of the American military and Iraqi government.”
These Saudi-backed cross-border tribes between Syria and Iraq are the same tribes that attacked thousands of US soldiers and Muslim Shia groups in Iraq. Now, the United States is supporting these tribes as they attack Syrian soldiers.
In reference to the Syrian uprising, President Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union Address, “How this incredible transformation will end remains uncertain. But we
have a huge stake in the outcome.”
Saudi-backed rebels are not the only group protesting against Assad’s repressive regime. However, if the Saudi-backed rebels do succeed in overthrowing Assad and establishing a Salafi regime, the United States may be faced with a larger scale replica of the destruction that followed the Soviet-Afghan war.
This article is part 1 of an in-depth series on the Syrian uprising.