Yusuf al-Qaradawi is an Egyptian preacher with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood that now rules his homeland, has long lived under the protection of the emir of Qatar, and wants his version of Sunni Islam to help redefine the politics of the Arab world.
John McCain is an American senator, a war hero who endured six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and would like to see a vigorous US effort to bring America's vision of democracy to the far corners of the globe.
An odd couple, to be sure. But on the fundamentals of the Syrian civil war, they're on the same page: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, a new government must be formed under the leadership of elements of the currently raging rebellion, and Iran's influence must be wrenched out of Syria.
But after that is when the trouble starts. Mr. McCain has been a proponent for greater US involvement in the Syrian war and made a brief trip into rebel-held territory there last week. He has argued that President Barack Obama's reticence about US involvement in a civil war that has strong sectarian overtones is undue, and that it's possible for the US to selectively support rebels who back US interests and keep arms out of the hands of Sunni jihadis aligned with Al Qaeda in Iraq – who have emerged as some of the rebellion's most capable fighters.
But his trip to Syria, organized by a DC-based group of exiles lobbying for US involvement, inadvertently illustrated how difficult it is to vet fighters in a far off war, in a cultural and political context that few US officials understand. During his few hours in the country, he posed for a picture with a group of rebel supporters. Two of them were later identified by Beirut's Daily Star (apparently bouncing of a report on Lebanon's Al Jadeed TV, which is sympathetic to Hezbollah) as having been involved in the abduction of a group of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims as they traveled home last year.
McCain disputes that either man was one of the kidnappers or motivated by sectarian hatred. It still appears possible that one of them was. There's no fault on McCain for this – he didn't know who he was meeting, and in rebel encampments in Syria, various people with various agendas are often present. But the incident illustrates how hard it is for outsiders to know who they're dealing with, or who they should trust.
Far more important than who McCain may have briefly met, there's reasonable evidence that weapons that were sent to Syrian fighters in a joint US-Saudi-Jordanian operation ended up within months in the hands of jihadi groups – including Jabhat al-Nusra, which is designated as a terrorist group by the US State Department.
This isn't particularly surprising. In wars like Syria's, with a patchwork of rebel units and little in the way of a central command, weapons are fungible. And while the vision that members of the Free Syrian Army may have for the future of Syria is dramatically at odds with that of Jabhat al-Nusra, they're united in their hatred of Assad's government. An FSA general might promise that US-supplied anti-aircraft missiles, for instance, would never be given to a group the US doesn't like, but a more junior officer fighting to hold on to territory, and cooperating with one of America's proscribed groups, could easily make a different decision in the heat of battle.
And that brings us to Mr. Qaradawi, an influential Sunni preacher who has broad regional reach thanks to his regular television show on Qatar's Al Jazeera.
Qaradawi wants Iran – and its ally, the Lebanese Shiite political movement and army Hezbollah – out of Syria, much as McCain does, though Qarawadi's motivations are far different. He wants a Sunni Islamist political order to replace the current regime, and according to his comments at a rally in Qatar on Friday, views Iran's interests in Syria as sectarian. "Now we know what the Iranians want.... They want continued massacres to kill Sunnis," he said.
Qaradawi said he wasn't against all Shiites, but said he was ashamed of his past support for Hezbollah (given because they fought Israel) and dubbed the group the "Party of Satan." (Hezbollah means "Party of God.")
"Every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that [must] make himself available.... Iran is pushing forward arms and men, so why do we stand idle?," he asked. "How could 100 million Shiites defeat 1.7 billion Sunnis? Only because Sunni Muslims are weak.”
Those totals refer to rough estimates of global number of Sunnis and Shiites, and the import of his meaning was clear: a call for a mandatory jihad in Syria, similar to calls made by other preachers to carry out jihads against the Soviet or US presences in Afghanistan, or the US-led occupation of Iraq.
On Fox and Friends this morning, McCain dismissed worries that US involvement in the war would encourage a spreading of sectarian conflict, arguing that in fact it would be the fastest way to end the war.
"Yes, there are extremists flowing into the country," he said. "But that’s because we’ve done nothing to help the rebels succeed. And yes they have some light weapons, but they need anti-tank weapons and they need anti-air weapons. And thanks to Hezbollah, the Russians, and Iranians, now Bashar al Assad has the initiative on his side."
McCain called on the US to imposed a no-fly zone on the country and to "take out their air assets" and implied that would head off dangerous regional repercussions:
There’s a real threat to [Israel] now, this has spilled over into Lebanon, fighting in Lebanon, Jordan cannot last, the king of Jordan cannot last under this present scenario. Ten percent of their population are refugees. Can you imagine 10 percent of our population being refugees?
The same concerns that we see publicly that we don’t want to get involved in escalation [he said, asked about Obama's reasons for inaction]. The Americans are war-weary there’s no doubt about that, but if we stand by and watch this continue and spread it’s going to become a regional war and we can affect things beneficially. And if we can’t, then I can assure Americans that they are wasting hundreds of billions of tax dollars on national defense."
It's not clear how a US effort to help the rebellion win would necessarily end the refugee crisis – though it might shift its demographics.
Syria's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that Assad and many of the stalwarts of his regime belong to, make up about 10 percent of Syria's population – about 2.2 million people. Syria's ancient Christian population is also likely to feel threatened after a war won by the country's Sunni majority. (Iraq's Christian population fell by at least a third as a result of jihadi attacks during the Iraq war.)
At any rate, McCain, a leading US hawk, wants the same thing in the short term as Sheikh Qaradawi. But the two men, their two camps, want dramatically different things in the long term for Syria. Which camp is likely to have more influence in a post-Assad Syria?