In much of what we now call the Muslim world, Muslims are fighting Muslims. The conflicts fall into two broad categories: those in which militants battle militants, and those in which militants battle moderates. The outcomes of these conflicts matter.
Syria is the most visible battlefield in these wars. Initially, Bashir al-Assad, satrap of the regime that rules Iran, was challenged by peaceful protesters demanding basic rights and freedoms. He brutalized them. Today, he is in a duel to the death with an opposition increasingly dominated by such al-Qaeda affiliated groups as Jabhat al-Nusra.
When jihadists are slaughtering jihadists, both sides claiming they are “fighting in the way of Allah,” a measure of schadenfreude is probably inevitable among us infidels. But people of conscience should not discount the human cost: 70,000 Syrian men, women, and children killed over the past two years, more than a million refugees, ancient cities reduced to rubble.
The strategic stakes are high: The overthrow of Assad would deal a body blow to the hegemonic ambitions of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s hold on power would be weakened. Maximizing these opportunities should be a priority for Western policymakers. You can bet that Iranian and Hezbollah commanders are working on ways to minimize the damage.
Though we can’t predict what happens after Assad falls, we can plan for a range of contingencies. A rule of history is that those who are doing the shooting today will call the shots tomorrow. That implies that the Sunni jihadists will be in the strongest position post-Assad. The more — and the sooner — we bolster anti-jihadist Syrians the better.
Across Syria’s eastern border, al-Qaeda in Iraq has been revived. Iranian-linked Shia jihadist groups also are active again. Together, they are rekindling sectarian strife, which, it turns out, was not caused by the presence of Americans and has not been dissipated by the departure of Americans. Nor is the Shia vs. Sunni conflict only a local phenomenon, the result of corralling different groups within European-drawn borders. Wathiq al-Batat, secretary general of the Iraqi branch of (Shia) Hezbollah, recently threatened to wage jihad against the (Sunni) state to the south, or, as al-Batat memorably phrased it, “the infidel, atheist Saudi regime.”