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Bashar Al-Assad's New War: Has Syria's Civil War Been Hijacked By Foreign Fighters?

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A power struggle between Islamist factions within the Syrian opposition threatens to turn violent, opening up another front in the bloody civil war and casting more confusion over the face of Syria's opposition.

Members of the Al-Nusra Front are unhappy that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq — has attempted to unite both groups under his leadership, defying the orders of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahri, to whom both groups are aligned.

"He rejected the ruling of Sheikh Zawahri and therefore he is no longer a brother of Al-Qaeda," a senior Nusra commander told Reuters. "After Sheikh Zawahri ruled in our favor, the State (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) is illegitimate."

These divisions come as Western powers agree to provide arms and support to the opposition. Sen. John McCain, who recently met with rebels, claims the opposition needs heavy weapons and a no-fly zone to counter Assad's army.

However critics claim it will be impossible to ensure that military aid will not reach Islamist factions — many of whom have fought against the U.S. during Iraq's Sunni insurgency.

The Free Syrian Army, the rebel's supposedly secular faction, has become increasingly reliant on effective and well-equipped foreign fighters, with thousands defecting to groups such as Al-Nusra in the last year.

"Already some of those weapons … have been shown in radical militants’ hands," said Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. "And even though the weapons are significantly better than they were before, they are still not the sophisticated kind the opposition would like."

Over the course of the civil war, the opposition has grown from defected Syrian army officers to include fighters from as far afield as Tunisia, Chechnya, and Pakistan. With Hezbollah's Shi'a militia now fighting alongside government forces, Syria is fast becoming a regional battleground for Sunni-Shi'a Muslim rivalries.

One Syrian opposition group, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, has already called for all foreign fighters to leave the country regardless of what side they are on.

With atrocities being committed by both sides — including the recent torture and murder of a 14-year-old boy by rebels for alleged blasphemy — any distinctions about who is worthy of military support are becoming increasingly difficult to make. 

Since there is still being no consensus over which faction should represent the opposition in a Syrian peace conference, talks between the U.S. and Russia have come to a standstill. And with Assad's recent military gains, there is little incentive for him to agree to any negotiations that insist he steps down from power.

Until both sides are become exhausted by the destruction of this conflict — unlikely while foreign fighters continue to hijack both sides — the only short-term solution will be some kind of negotiated peace settlement. In the long term, it may yet be decades before the wounds of this conflict begin to heal. As it stands, Syria offers no simple answers and no perfect solutions.

For more updates on Syria and other stories, follow me on Twitter: @alexebennett.

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