By Joel Brinkley
Sooner or later, the United States and its Western allies are going to have to go into Syria with force, like it or not. There's little choice.
I'm not talking about retaliation for the apparent chemical-weapons attacks that killed hundreds of people and injured thousands more. The Syrians have committed a grave international crime -- and crossed President Obama's "red line" once again. Some sort of response is warranted, even if only to show that the United States means what it says, and henceforth its warnings should be taken seriously.
No, actually the greater problem is al-Qaeda. Slowly but surely its affiliates are taking over the country. In fact, some reports estimate that al-Qaeda groups now control up to 40 percent of Syrian territory, particularly in northern and eastern provinces. And the Assad government seems incapable of doing much about it. That shouldn't be surprising. After all, how far has the American military gone in defeating the Taliban, an al-Qaeda-like group, after 12 years of warfare in Afghanistan?
Can the West allow al-Qaeda to establish a major new base of operations, particularly in such a strategic spot -- bordering Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel, and only a stone's throw from Iran? Certainly not. That would give al-Qaeda a strong, crucial foothold in the Middle East and, potentially, access to Syria's chemical weapons. This situation is growing to be similar to Afghanistan in 2001, but more serious. And with all that territory, al-Qaeda can plan and carry out operations even with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad still in power, controlling an ever-shrinking area of Syria.
The al-Qaeda affiliates fighting in Syria are ardent Assad foes, of course. (After all, he's a Shiite, and al-Qaeda is a Sunni group.)
But now al-Qaeda has also declared war on the more secular Syrian rebels, the so-called Free Syrian Army, and seizing their territory. These are the Syrian army deserters and others who have been the opposition's mainstay from the beginning of the conflict more than two years ago. These are the soldiers the U.S has been talking about arming.
Two major al-Qaeda groups are fighting there. The Jabhat al-Nusra Front has been active there for a long time now. But this year these jihadists, responsible for numerous car bombs and worse, have been joined by a larger and more threatening group that in recent months renamed itself: "The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant." Locally, it's known as the ISI. It fights alongside al-Nusra but brings a much more threatening agenda to the battle. And almost every day, hundreds more jihadists from Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Iraq and elsewhere are pouring into Syria, eager to jump into another ideological battle.
Al-Monitor, a website that covers the region, reported that ISI's leader, Abu Osama al-Tunisi, has issued orders to all the Syrian rebels: Swear allegiance to my organization, hand over your weapons -- or die. Free Syrian Army soldiers say ISI has already killed a senior battalion commander among at least a dozen other rebel officers. Tunisi is also tacking wanted posters with photos of Free Syrian Army officers on the doors of mosques, offering rewards for their capture or death.
The al-Qaeda group is also using rape as a weapon. In fact, extremist Sheik Yasir al-Ajlawni recently issued a fatwa calling for the rape of any "non-Sunni" Syrian women.
At the same time, the ISI is warning journalists and aid workers to get out of the country, particularly the border areas with Turkey -- and stay away. More than a dozen of these people have reportedly been killed in recent months.
The Free Syrian Army finds itself spending as much time fighting al-Qaeda as the Syrian government, even as Assad grows more desperate and ruthless. The chemical-weapons attack was only the most recent, blatant reminder. But now, how is the United States going to arm these soldiers, knowing that al-Qaeda terrorists intend to kill the very same soldiers and seize their weaponry at the first opportunity?
Across Syria's eastern provinces, citizens are holding almost daily protest demonstrations against al-Qaeda, demanding the release of people ISI has captured.
"They kidnap anyone who opposes their point of view," an activist who declined to give his name told the Washington Post. ISI is beheading some protestors while also jailing members of its allied al-Nusra force who voice disapproval of the group's more extremist policies.
Day by day, this problem is swelling, spreading. The West can't simply stand by and watch.