What is going on in Syria?
Sunni Arabs make up the largest population group in that country. However, Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria and Commander-in-Chief of the Syrian armed forces, is Alawite, a subset of Shia. The al-Assad family has controlled Syria for forty-four years. It nominally operates within the Ba'athist political party, which it controls. The Ba'ath party seized power in Syria in 1963 after a coup d'état. Since March 2011 (the Arab Spring) a civil war has been waged by those wishing to remove Bashar al-Assad from power. The revolutionary opposition to al-Assad is not monothilic, with various groups being in revolt. Al-Assad has been brutal in his reaction to the revolution.
The relationship between Bashar al-Assad and al Qaeda and ISIS is uncertain. Outwardly, Syria claims it is under attack by al Qaeda and ISIS. The Syrian foreign ministry called on Jordan, which is part of a U.S.-led aerial campaign against ISIS, "to cooperate in the fight against terrorism represented by the organization Daesh and Nusra Front ... and other terrorist organizations associated with them in Syria and the region." Daesh is a Arabic acronym for ISIS and Nusra Front is al-Qaeda's Syria wing. Both have seized land in Syria. The United States has said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cannot be a partner in the fight against ISIS. Bashar al-Assad undoubtedly has had dealings with both groups.
Both ISIS (Daesh) and al-Qaeda (Nusra Front or al Nusra) are Sunni Muslim. Bashar al-Assad is Shia (actually Alawite, a subset of Shia). Thus, on a fundamental religious level, al-Assad and these two groups are not compatible. As the authors of a recent study for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, put it: “Assad is the perfect al Qaeda villain. He is an Alawite and therefore a heretic, he is a secularist and therefore an apostate, and he is conducting a war without quarter against much of his Sunni population.” The same could be said for ISIS, which also is Sunni.
While acknowledging that the presence of the jihadists has served Assad in propaganda terms and has helped to dissuade the West from offerring major military support to the rebels, analyst Brian Fishman, a fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, argues there is a difference between “an explicit partnership or an implicit alignment of interests.” He maintains: “The more important story about the rise of al Qaeda in Syria is that the opposition and their supporters made the tragic strategic blunder of tolerating and sometimes enabling al Qaeda linked organizations.”
This is a fluid situation of potential strange bedfellows who may share common short-term goals. However, never forget the Sunni-Shia scism if you really want to understand what is happening.