On July 24, 2012, the New York Times published an article named “Al Qaeda Taking Deadly New Role in Syria Conflict.” The article comments on an interview with an al-Qaeda operative in Iraq and on a video posted in YouTube by al-Qaeda. In the latter, masked men speak with two flags of al-Qaeda in their background; they claim to be fighting against the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad. This is relatively credible, and actually fits claims by Bashar al-Assad that the violence in the country is being driven by non-Syrians. The article cites also senior Iraqi officials claiming that the same al-Qaeda cells are active in Iraq and Syria. Yet, in a careless whisper, the New York Times also disclosed that these cells seem to be true foreigners to Islam and the Middle East.
The error took place during the abovementioned interview. Abu Thuha, a 56-year-old al-Qaeda operative in the Hawija district near Kirkuk in Iraq, spoke to an Iraqi reporter for The New York Times and said: “Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine.” In English it may sound logical, though extremist. Yet, in the Middle Eastern context, this text is impossible to accept. Both states–Syria and Iraq–are basically colonial states; their actual borders were drawn by Western powers. As a result they are not nation-states; this is the source for much of the inner fighting we see in the area. When combining them, there is no chance of creating a stable, homogeneous nation-state. A complex matrix defined on ethnic and religious terms is the only way to map the population; the al-Qaeda speaker quoted by the prominent American newspaper had made a clumsy mishmash of it.
The complex situation in Syria includes two main struggles. The most obvious one is between the Syrian Army and the West-backed Free Syrian Army. In parallel, there is a violent conflict between the Alawi minority-closely related to Shia Islam-and Sunni Arabs. The Alawi comprise roughly 12% of the population and hold the power; the Assad dynasty is Alawi. The Sunni are 74% of the population and are attempting to use the ongoing mayhem in order to gain power. The ethnic conflict is conducted by paramilitary organizations trying to evict each other from their respective territories. The most visible result of this conflict is the gathering of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and the incessant reports on massacres of civilians. The Syrian Army-where Alawis enjoy a privileged position-favors the Alawi population, thus the ethnic struggle is a tie despite the unequal forces involved. The Syrian Army gets support from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, while the rebels are financially supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and get military help from Western sources smuggling weapons via Turkey. Until now, al-Qaeda had no significance. Yet, they got a very expansive exposure on this issue in one of America’s leading newspapers.
al-Qaeda is a riddle. Often it is described as a global militant Sunni Islamist organization founded by Osama bin Laden in 1988 as an answer to the Soviet War in Afghanistan; it preaches a strict enforcement of the Muslim Sharia Law. To say the least, its beginnings make it plausible that the CIA looked at it as an ally. Then–out of the blue–this miniscule organization was blamed for the 9/11 events and gained international prominence. Its membership is global, thus gaffes from non-Middle Eastern members may be expected. However, the operative interviewed lives in Iraq; he was unlikely to make such a colossal error. Imagine an American saying in an interview to the New York Times something like “Californians are Mexican citizens; we want to conquer Mexico and unify Christianity.” It makes as much sense as the al-Qaeda operative’s statements made to the New York Times. We are seeing something different here.
Both Syria and Iraq feature sizeable Shi’a and Sunni populations. Westerners must remember that this is just a religious definition; as said before; ethnic Alawis are Shi’a in their religious interpretation. The relation between Shi’a and Sunni is similar to the one between Protestant and Catholic Christians. Each group preaches different interpretations of the same facts; yet, in their core they share the same beliefs. Both Shi’a and Sunni consider the Quran to be divine, and Muhammad to be God’s prophet. The different opinions on more daily matters may cause tensions from time to time, but they are all Muslims. Yet, the al-Qaeda operative said “our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims,” and then mentioned attacking Shi’a Iran, as if the Shi’a and other Muslim denominations existing in the area were to be wiped-out, or forced to convert to the Sunni branch of Islam. This is not a proper Muslim preaching, which is always tolerant of monotheistic minorities; see for example Spain’s Golden Age under Islamic Rule. A more recent example can be seen nowadays in Iran; despite Western propaganda, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran recognizes Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism as legal religions. Islam is tolerant. The definition of a person recognizing Muhammad as God’s Prophet and the divinity of the Quran as a religious-enemy by a Muslim–as made by the al-Qaeda operative–is unconceivable. He was delivering carefully designed propaganda aimed at Western ears.
This oddity becomes more evident when one searches for hard facts on the al-Qaeda presence and activity in Syria. The New York Times published also that a Free Syrian Army brigade leader in Eastern Syria claimed that he had heard rumors about al-Qaeda fighters, but had never actually seen one. YouTube videos, New York Times interviews: these are Western media stars and not freedom fighters. Apparently, America is preparing a violent, dramatic event in Syria and is preparing the background needed to blame al-Qaeda, the CIA’s best friend. The day after, Hollywood will release the movie version of the event.