Syria is ruled by leaders in the Alawite community, who comprise roughly 10 percent of the population. The Alawites are Arabs who embrace a variant of the Shia branch of Islam. Their Shia-style of Islam has helped them win military and financial backing from Iran, the main home of Shia Islam.
In contrast, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are populated by Sunni Muslims, who generally deride Shia Muslims.
The Turkish government is backing the radical Muslim Brotherhood’s forces in Syria, while the Saudi government and wealthy Saudis tend to back even more radical groups, including some affiliates of al-Qaida.
The Brotherhood and al-Qaida share similar goals — the revival of an Islamic theocracy across the Arab region — but the differ on the means. The brotherhood tries to win power via civil action, education, and votes as well as force, while the al-Qaida insists that power can only be won by force.
“We’ve coordinated very closely with Turkey in our support for the opposition within Syria, and we’ll continue to do so going forward,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters Sept. 6. Obama and the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “had a good discussion on Syria, and we feel quite aligned with Turkey in our approach to the issue,” he said.
Erdogan is an Islamist who has suppressed public protests and jailed journalists in Turkey. He is a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and has called for the U.S. to help restore Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed government to power after a July military coup , and also to help topple Syria’s government.
In Syria, the al-Qaida groups have announced plans to attack civilians who are not Sunni Muslims, including the Alawites, as well as the country’’s large population of unarmed Christians.
It is not clear if the brotherhood-linked rebels groups are willing or able to curbs sectarian murders by the more radical groups.
The U.S. government is supplying financial and military aid to rebels in the southern portion of Syria, alongside the Jordanian border. But U.S. officials say the aid program is constricted by the concern that aid will fall int the hands of the more radical groups.