My pick for most bizarre foreign story of the day is the tale of Eric Haroun, a former U.S. army private from Arizona who’s under arrest for fighting with Syrian rebels seeking to topple the Assad regime.
Keep in mind that the United States backs the efforts of the Syrian rebels. But Haroun, who says he set out to join a unit of the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group that Washington supports, wound up fighting with the most effective Syrian militia, the Nusra Front which is allied with al-Qaeda.
His odyssey is similar to that of many Syrian opposition fighters, who are drawn to the Nusra Front, which seems to have no trouble getting money for weapons from rich Gulf Arabs, unlike the non-radical groups America supposedly supports, who’ve often had trouble getting bullets and guns.
Syrian opposition fighters who are not jihadis have told me they’ll join with any group that appears successful in fighting the Assad regime, even if they dislike the group’s ideology. An FBI agent on Haroun’s case has said the agency has no evidence he holds fundamentalist views. He told the agency he “hates al-Qaeda” and refused the Nusra Front’s offer to make him their English language spokesman.
Now Haroun appears to be something of a wild man. He had brushes with the law in Arizona and violent conflicts with his father, and he came to the FBI’s attention because of his frequent posts on YouTube and Facebook about his Syrian exploits.
But his current situation – facing charges of fighting with a terrorist group - underlines the contradictions of the U.S. policy on Syria. We back the Free Syrian Army in principle but not sufficiently in practice, thus opening the door for Islamists to take the lead in the struggle to overthrow Bashar al Assad.
In Syria, non-jihadi youth are drawn to the Nusra Front because it has the right stuff to fight Assad, whom we want out of power. But when a seemingly unbalanced American youth follows that course, he faces the possibility of life in jail.