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.

Amateur Video via AP
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.)

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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