The above quote was offered, you’ll recall, by John McCain a couple of months ago, in response to a question about whether there was anybody in the Syrian rebel army who the US could arm safely, without worrying that our weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists. Well, we better step up those arms shipments, because pretty soon there may not be too many more of “them” for Senator McCain to meet:
Secular Syrian rebels said on Friday that the assassination of one of their top commanders by al-Qaeda linked militants in the country “was tantamount to a declaration of war, opening a new front for the Western-backed fighters struggling against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces,” Reuters reports.
Leaving aside the question of what “secular” means in this context, there is very clearly a side war going on for control of the rebellion, between radicalized Salafi (whether directly affiliated with al-Qaeda or not) elements who see Syria as a war against the apostate Alawi and Shi’i who are behind Assad and those elements that (seemingly) just want to get rid of a nasty dictator. These guys have fought together for some time now, and in fact it’s probably been the radicals who have kept the rebellion afloat, since they’re the ones with the arms, the training, and the commitment to a big, existential cause that many/most (all?) of the other rebel forces lack.
So what’s causing the infighting all of a sudden? I see this happening precisely because we’ve decided to get involved in the conflict and start arming the “good” “moderate” rebels, assuming we can trust that John McCain “knows them” and that we can actually get our arms shipments to the right side in the war, which is apparently no mean feat. Once American weapons start flowing in the power structure among the rebels may very well change, with better equipped “moderates” able to carry the fight without relying on more radical fighters, and at any rate the incentive for the “moderates” running the rebellion now becomes appeasing America by cutting off those radical groups from its main governing structures so as to keep advanced western tech flowing in. The radicals, the Salafis, understand this quite well, because their movement has had this happen to them before. In 1990, when Saddam’s army rolled over Kuwait and threatened the Saudis, Osama bin Laden offered his fighters to the Saudi government as defense against the Iraqis; the Saudis refused and instead invited the Americans in to the heartland of Islam as their protection. Al-Qaeda’s war against the west and the Saudi monarchy began in earnest because of that event. In Bosnia, hundred (if not thousands) of foreign jihadis poured into the country to aid their fellow Muslim Bosniaks, yet after the west finally got involved and imposed a cease-fire, those fighters were ignominiously booted out of the country (many with nowhere to go since they were wanted criminals in their own countries). So the jihadi brigades almost instinctively know what will happen to them once America gets involved, and they’re trying to take apart their rivals for control of the rebellion before their situation starts to deteriorate.
This inter-Sunni fighting is also going on in Iraq, and for the same reason: Salafi groups are eliminating more moderate (or apostasized as far as the Salafis are concerned) Sunnis in order to consolidate their position among the Sunni populace in advance of, or complementary with, their attacks against the Shi’a.