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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.

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The escalation of the conflict in Iraq, particularly sectarian mobilization along Sunni-Shiite lines, drew large numbers of Sunni Iraqis, Libyans, Tunisians, Saudis, Yemenis, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Moroccans who flooded the country to defend Sunnis, seen as being victimized by both the Americans and the Shiites, including Iran. Syria was one of the conduits for this flow of Arab jihadists to Iraq.

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A cursory look at some of the Salafi-jihadi websites now shows a similar mobilization strategy in Syria, using a sectarian framework of Sunni vs. Alawite, to recruit fighters.

In the end, Iraq turned out to be the graveyard of Al Qaeda. Though initially Sunni Arabs in Iraq welcomed Al Qaeda with open arms, a few years later the very same community turned against the terrorist organization with a vengeance. The tipping points were Zarqawi’s indiscriminate and gruesome attacks against civilians and his systemic efforts to trigger all-out sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites, together with violation of tribal norms. Al Qaeda has never regained its strong footing there.

Yet there is a real danger that if Syria descends into all-out civil war like Iraq did between 2003 and 2007, Al Qaeda will likely find a home and become a hub for fighters from neighboring countries. This is a frightening development, one that plays straight into the hands of the Syrian regime. In a May 16 interview on the Russian state news channel, Rossiya 24, Syrian President Assad stated that there are no peaceful protesters in his country, only armed gangs and terrorists of Al Qaeda variety, and that the uprising was part of a foreign-led and -financed conspiracy.

For Al Qaeda chief Zawahiri and like-minded jihadists, Syria provides an opportunity to embed the terror network in a local conflict and establish a presence in a strategic theater. Zawahiri and his cohorts know well the importance of what they call al-hadina al-sha’biya (the popular embrace or base) and will try hard to appeal to the Sunni community in Syria by playing the sectarian card.

So far, the evidence shows that there are few buyers in Syria for Al Qaeda’s sales pitch. With few exceptions, ordinary Sunnis in Syria see Al Qaeda as a liability, not an asset. The Free Syrian Army has said Al Qaeda is not welcome in the country, and that it will militarily confront it, if the extremist group ever establishes a base there.

The future of Al Qaeda in war-torn Syria will depend, in the end, on how the Sunni community there reacts to the arrival of jihadi fighters: Without fertile soil and an accepting host, Al Qaeda and other extremist elements will not survive.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics where he directs the Middle East Centre. He is author of “The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda” (Oxford University Press).

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