The Syrian War is a Sectarian Conflict

I kind of doubt that Jim Webb will be Hillary Clinton’s “worst nightmare,” but his admonition that our nation should “never get involved in a five-sided argument” is looking more and more sound in Syria.

The Guardian‘s latest report couldn’t really be much worse. The Sunnis on the ground, who have been fighting the Shi’a-suppoted Alawite government in Damascus for years now, really cannot see U.S. bombing missions against Sunnis as anything but an attack on them in support of the Assad regime.

US air strikes in Syria are encouraging anti-regime fighters to forge alliances with or even defect to Islamic State (Isis), according to a series of interviews conducted by the Guardian.

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamic military groups are joining forces with Isis, which has gained control of swaths of Syria and Iraq and has beheaded six western hostages in the past few months.

Some brigades have transferred their allegiance, while others are forming tactical alliances or truces. Support among civilians also appears to be growing in some areas as a result of resentment over US-led military action.

We like to make a big distinction between the fanatics in ISIS or ISIL or Islamic State (or whatever you want to call them this week) and more reasonable Sunni fighters. This distinction isn’t as important in the region as it is for us. In the fight to take down Assad, there are no bad Sunnis or good attacks against Sunni fighters.

We cannot waltz in there are try to change the fight into good Sunnis vs. bad Sunnis.

Except, actually, after years of resisting direct involvement in exactly this kind of five-sided conflict, we’re failing to see how in the most important sense, it has become two-sided.

Abu Talha said he had joined the FSA after being released from prison in an amnesty Assad granted shortly after the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, and became commander of the Ansar al-Haq brigade in Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus. He became disillusioned with the FSA, however, believing it was a tool of foreign intelligence services and poor in combat. After four senior fighters in his brigade were fatally wounded a few months ago, he defected to Isis.

“Since that day, I vowed not to fight under a flag bearing the mark of the FSA even for a second. I looked around for truthful jihadis, to fight by their side. I could not find any better than the jihadis of Isis. I told my fighters: ‘I’m going to join Isis, you are free to follow me or choose your own way’,” he said.

More than 200 of his fellow fighters also declared their allegiance to Isis, a move met with opprobrium by other FSA brigades and civilians. Then the US and its allies began a campaign of air strikes.

“All those who were cursing and attacking us for joining Isis came to pledge their loyalty to Isis. A couple were FSA commanders, others were members of Islamic brigades. Even ordinary people now demand to be governed by Isis,” Abu Talha said.

The point is that we will not isolate ISIS by bombing them. We will not make the Sunni insurgency against Assad more moderate or pro-American. We need to understand what we are not capable of doing.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.