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.
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And increasing evidence points toward the arrival in the country of jihadist fighters from Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and elsewhere. There is consensus among American and Western intelligence services that Al Qaeda fighters have reached Syria and have joined the fray.Skip to next paragraph
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So far, there have been 11 car bombings in Syria, some of which were coordinated attacks that killed hundreds of civilians and security personnel. Although it is difficult to ascertain the identity of the perpetrators, Al Qaeda’s alleged involvement is not surprising. The raging war in Syria has taken a sectarian Sunni-Shiite bent, which allows Al Qaeda, a Sunni-based movement, to exploit and position itself as a defender of the Sunni community. Most media accounts that assert either the existence of absence of AL Qaeda in Syria are speculative and, on balance, tend to be ideologically driven.
The current leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has publicly called on jihadists to journey to Syria, fight against the apostate Assad regime, and defend persecuted Sunnis. “Don’t depend on the West and Turkey, which had deals, mutual understanding, and sharing with this regime for decades and only began to abandon it after they saw it faltering,” he said in a video message released in February. Urging Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to join the uprisings, he said, “Instead, depend on Allah alone and then on your sacrifices, resistance, and steadfastness.”
Al Qaeda’s infiltration in Syria, however, should not obscure a critical point: The terrorist organization was not present at the beginning of the uprising more than a year ago. Yet through the escalation of the violence and continuing bloodshed, the Syrian government has succeeded in imposing its own reality on the essentially peaceful struggle, thrown the country into chaos, thereby attracting Salafi-jihadi fighters.
Whether in Iraq, Somalia, or Yemen, Al Qaeda is a social parasite that feeds on social instability. In this way, Syria is beginning to resemble Iraq at the outset of the US-led invasion and occupation of the country: It is becoming a theater where multiple elements, not just Al Qaeda, but also Salafi fighters, are appearing.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, had fewer than 50 fighters in the whole country. By the time he was killed in a US air raid in June 2006, thousands of suicide bombings had been carried out in Iraq, a country that did not experience a single suicide bombing before the American invasion.