The consequences of the Syrian civil war are going to be felt for years to come, even outside the immediate region.
The longer the Syrian civil war has continued, the less appealing the armed opposition has become. A large part of the problem has been that, despite claims of a unified military command, the reality is that Syria's Alawite-dominated secular regime and its close ties to Iran has served as a lightning rod for Sunni Islamists of many colours to take up arms in the hope of toppling the regime and Islamising (or re-Islamising, for those Umayyad caliphate revivalists) Syria.
This David Ignatius piece in the Washington Post provides an overview of the orders of battle of the main armed opposition groups, though it needs to be read in conjunction with the work of another Syria watcher, Joshua Landis, to provide some context.
To further confuse the issue, there are reports that neighbouring countries are seeking US help in stopping the spillover effects of the Syrian civil war. Jordan has allegedly hosted US military elements to train rebel groups in an effort to create a 'buffer zone' with Syria. And Iraq fears an expansion of cooperation between AQ Iraq elements and Syrian-based Islamist groups; there are reports that Baghdad is considering asking for US drones to attack the Islamist groups.
But amid all of the chaos that is Syria, the more immediate concern for Western intelligence and security agencies is the role Syria is playing in providing a proving ground for extremists from Western countries. A recently released article on European jihadists highlights how difficult it is to garner accurate empirical evidence, but estimates that Europeans constituted 7-11% of all foreign fighters in Syria, which translates into somewhere between 140 and 600 people.
There are similar concerns involving Australian citizens. Already at least two nationals have been killed: a kickboxer cum aid worker and a sheikh cum aid worker, with unconfirmed reports that a third Australian citizen was killed earlier this year.
How the Islamist and non-Islamist strands of the armed opposition reconcile their post-Assad view of Syria is likely to determine the degree of bloodletting and chaos that ensues if and when Assad falls. And the legacy of jihadis with skills learnt in Syria will likely impact on close neighbours such as Iraq and Lebanon, where the Shi'a community is either in the political ascendancy or are the political power brokers, providing an ongoing ideological justification for Sunni Islamists to operate there.
Photo by Flickr user Christiaan Triebert.