“The United States will be on the same side as al-Qaeda,” writes Robert Fisk in today’s Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/does-obama-know-hes-fighting-on-alqaidas-side-8786680.html). In a short piece outlining the case against Western military intervention in Syria, Fisk argues that by entering the conflict the US will, for the first time in history, be entering into an alliance with the terrorist group that killed thousands of innocent people in New York in 2001.
But he has misinterpreted al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria, and his argument is wrong.
Al-Qaeda are not in Syria to beat Bashar; they are there to try to establish an Islamic state. Last month I interviewed an al-Qaeda member in Aleppo Province, and I asked him why he had come to fight jihad in Syria.
“The aim is to implement Sharia,” he replied. “If that was not the aim then we wouldn’t have come to fight here. We’d leave the Syrians to fight by themselves. We don’t fight for nationalist reasons, we fight for Islam.”
Later on he claimed that victory in Syria would provide al-Qaeda with a base from which they could advance on Jerusalem.
So here is the crucial point: al-Qaeda (and here I am referring to the foreign jihadist group that is officially linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq rather than the homegrown and more loosely aligned Jabhat al-Nusra) only entered the Syrian conflict after the war had been raging for over a year and society had virtually broken down in many areas. It is no coincidence that their presence is strongest in the most chaotic areas – they know that this is where they will draw most support.
For any extremist organisation, the war zone is a fertile recruiting ground. Conflict makes rational people desperate, and far more willing to accept the presence of groups they would find abhorrent at any other time. Al-Qaeda know this, and their entrance into the Syrian conflict was a cynical and well planned out manoeuvre. They are feeding off the state of constant war there.
So why would al-Qaeda want anyone – least of all the Western powers – to depose Bashar? Because once the regime falls they know that they will no longer have any legitimate reason for being there, and the Syrian people will no longer tolerate them or their ideology.
Al-Qaeda are fighting for no-one but themselves in Syria – and by intervening the West will not be forming an alliance with them, but weakening the crushing grip that they have been tightening on the rebel held areas in recent months.