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Will Al Qaeda cement its foothold in Syria?

The massacre in Houla, Syria, over the weekend pushed Russia to finally denounce the atrocities there. But Moscow also warned that the regime of Bashar al-Assad faces threats from Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda's future in Syria depends on how Sunnis there respond to foreign jihadi fighters.

By Fawaz A. Gerges / May 29, 2012

This frame grab from an amateur video provided by Syrian activists purports to show the massacre in Houla on May 25. Op-ed contributor Fawaz A. Gerges says the 'consequences of chaos' mean that 'Syria has now become a proxy battlefield' for Al Qaeda. (The Associated Press is unable to independently verify the authenticity, content, location, or date of this citizen journalism image.)

Amateur Video via AP

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The massacre in Syria over the weekend that killed more than 100 people, including women and children, in Houla, outside the city of Homs, has increased the concern over the chaos there to new levels. While this latest atrocity pushed Russia to support a UN Security Council resolution condemning the violence, Moscow hesitated to place sole responsibility on the regime of Bashar al-Assad, warning that the government there faces increased terrorist threats bearing the “clear signature of Al Qaeda.”

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Al Qaeda has never been a key player in Syria, but as the crisis there has drawn on, it has turned from a political struggle to an armed conflict, bringing the consequences of chaos and desperation in tow. Whether recent bombings are the work of the terrorist network is unclear, but what is certain is this: Syria has now become a proxy battlefield in which Al Qaeda is laboring very hard to find a new refuge, and to portray itself as a guardian of Sunni Muslims – objectives that lie in stark contrast to those of the majority of Syrian protesters.

As the Syrian conflict escalates, and the country threatens to descend into all-out sectarian strife, Al Qaeda-like activists and factions will go to further lengths to establish a foothold in the country as they did in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. Their success will depend on how Syrians react to these foreign fighters and whether the aggrieved Sunni community will provide shelter. 

Twin car bombings a couple weeks ago that targeted a military-intelligence branch in a Damascus neighborhood, and which reportedly killed more than 50 and wounded hundreds, do bear the hallmark of Al Qaeda. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told youth conference attendees in New York, “I believe that there must be Al Qaeda behind it. This has created again very serious problems.”

The Al-Nusra Front, a jihadist militant group that has claimed responsibility for the bombings in Damascus, is extremely shadowy and prime for speculation – as are many details surrounding the violence in Syria. Al Qaeda-inspired or not, Al-Nusra should not be invested with any particular significance: There are dozens of opposition groups now operating independently in Syria.

While most eschew Al Qaeda’s tactics and ideology and are either religious-nationalists or secular-minded activists, more and more protesters have taken up arms to defend their communities. The Free Syrian Army is only one among many armed units operating independently from one another.

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