One thing is clear in the Syrian Civil War: the people the U.S. wants to win are not doing so. Influxes of cash from donors in the Gulf States have tipped the balance in favor of the extremist elements, particularly the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The al-Qaeda linked militants have made significant gains on the ground against both allies of the al-Assad regime and against the more moderate rebel militias. The takeover of large swaths of territory by these extremists, many of whom are foreigners traveling to Syria to fight a “jihad’ against the al-Assad regime, has led to the advancing of a sectarian narrative of the war. The regime and its allies consisting primarily of Shiites and Alawites—including forces of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah—on one side and the Sunni majority—assisted by al-Qaeda elements—on the other.
The United States reluctance to intervene with greater support for the rebels of moderate inclinations has allowed the extremists to fill the void. Their support from wealthy donors in places such as Kuwait has assured that they are better equipped and armed, and with the expertise of extremists who fought against the United States forces in Iraq, they have proven to be an effective fighting force. The inability of moderates to maintain control has led to towns falling under the sway of these Islamist groups, who carry out Taliban-style punishments in accordance with their strict religious codes. Several of these towns, despite being relatively secular before the war, have been taken over by Jihadi fighters, many of whom are not from Syria.
The similarities between the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and the current situation in Syria are numerous. Foreign donors, especially in the Persian Gulf states, are perfectly content sending money to fund what they believe are militants fighting under the banner of Salafist Islam. It is being seen as a holy war against nonbelievers, as the fighting against the Russians and Communists was in Afghanistan. The United States and Western powers need to be mindful of this situation, for it these extremists manage to carve out their own statelet it could be used as a training ground for attacks on Western targets just as Afghanistan was. The examples the Islamist groups are setting in Syria is one of hard-line Islamic law, with public executions for those even rumored to be spies for the al-Assad regime. Syrian Christians are the targets of these jihadist attacks with their churches being burned down. Syria has long been a mixing bowl of religions, from the various Islamic sects to Christians, Druze, and other groups. The Islamists in ISIS and al-Nusra have publically stated that their goal is to create a Sunni Islamic state in Syria and force Syrians to follow their strict laws, much like the Taliban did in Afghanistan after it seized control in the 1990s.
There is a real threat that Syria will become the next Afghanistan. Sunni extremists from across the world have streamed into Syria to mix with Syrian rebels and fight in what they believe to be a holy struggle against an “apostate” Shiite/Alawite dictator. This has played right into the hands of al-Assad, validating his claims of rebels as “terrorists” and “thugs,” even though these were initially untrue and used to discredit the opposition. Syria is in the throws of a war that has no signs of slowing down and has extreme elements on both sides throwing money and weapons into their side’s survival. With Iran and Hezbollah fighting and financing the regime and its allied militias, and with Sunni Gulf States’ citizens funding al-Qaeda affiliated groups on the other, the violence and level of bloodshed will inevitably increase, and the country will continue to see strife and civil war.