Jihadis in Syria: Separating Myth From Reality

By Bilal Y. Saab – Most of my recent media interventions have addressed the issue of al-Qaeda’s likely role and presence in Syria. Because we do not have accurate intelligence on this issue we should avoid definitive judgments. But we can get closer to the truth once we start asking the right questions. Questions like “who was behind the recent terrorist attacks in Syria” or “is al-Qaeda involved in Syria?” are not helpful. The answers to those two questions – unclear, perhaps – will not take us very far. The right question that should be asked is: “what is the nature of the al-Qaeda threat in Syria?” With a proper assessment and diagnosis of the problem we better understand the extent to which jihadis are involved in Syria. My bottom line is that whatever presence al-Qaeda has in Syria, it is likely to be small but still deadly. We are not dealing with a large insurgent movement that has widespread societal support and control over territory. Instead, I suspect we are dealing with a few (but elite) al-Qaeda operatives who may have formed some cells to create havoc. Things could change however if two variables materialize: one, sectarian fighting reaches new highs; two, al-Qaeda’s central leadership decides to invest in the Levant and specifically in the Syrian uprising.

I summarize my thoughts in today’s piece in The National Interest.

Is Al Qaeda involved in the Syrian uprising? It is a controversial and hotly debated issue in Washington. But if U.S. policy makers do not properly understand and diagnose the terrorist group’s influence and role in the Syrian conflict, Washington could pursue a detrimental course of action and hurt U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.

A Murky Picture

There is reason to believe that the Syrian government is behind recent terrorist attacks that killed dozens of people.

First, the Assads have a record of cooperating with terrorists to fight common enemies. Hafez, the late Syrian president and father of the current president Bashar, collaborated with violent Palestinian and Lebanese groups during the 1980s and 1990s to check Israel, and Bashar did the same with transnational jihadis in Iraq throughout the post-2003 U.S. occupation in an attempt to bleed U.S. forces.

Second, part of Bashar’s survival strategy, other than relying on the Russians and the Chinese to back him up at the United Nations Security Council, is to convince the world and especially the United States he is fighting terrorists. Launching terrorist attacks could not only bolster his claim but also frighten protestors and paralyze undecided Christians and others who are extremely wary of total, Iraq-style chaos in the country.

These compelling reasons notwithstanding, definitive judgments should be avoided. The sophistication, technical proficiency and lethality of the Damascus bombings smack of Al Qaeda-style terrorism. Also, border insecurity, increased Islamist radicalization of the uprising, the operational capabilities of Al Qaeda franchises in the region and weak Syrian state capacity (despite the notorious power of its intelligence services) make it possible that Al Qaeda was involved, possibly with armed rebels who might have formed a devil’s pact with the terror group to defeat Assad. The picture is so murky that even America’s top military official, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, said he was not entirely sure of the extent to which Al Qaeda is involved inSyria.

A Weak Franchise

Yet while accurate intelligence on Al Qaeda’s role in Syria is currently lacking, historical trends and Levantine realities militate against the possibility of the terrorist organization creating an insurgent movement and an Islamic emirate in Syria.

First, Al Qaeda has no real partners it can count on to fulfill its goals of expanding in theLevant and fightingIsrael. Small groups such as Jund al-Sham, Fatah al Islam, Jund Ansar Allah and now Jabhat al-Nusra (which recently claimed responsibility for the Damascus bombings) are nothing like what Al Qaeda in Iraq once was—or what Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is today. These small groups lack organizational coherence, human and material resources, and fighting capabilities. Thus, they were never fit to serve as Al Qaeda franchises in the Levant. Members of these groups can best be described as freelance jihadi fighters with no proven dedication to Al Qaeda’s cause.

Second, despite the increased Islamist radicalization of the Syrian uprising and its spillover to Lebanon’s northern region, Al Qaeda’s takfiri ideology does not have a strong popular following or support base in most of the Levant.

Third, Iran continues to dominate the politics of the Levant, leaving little room for Al Qaeda to mobilize and conduct its business. Despite talk among some experts about a cozy relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda, the truth is that Tehran works to prevent the terrorist group from expanding into what it considers its own sphere of influence, projecting Shia values and norms and sponsoring not only Shia but also Sunni groups in the area.

Fourth, their desire to harm Israel and liberate Jerusalem notwithstanding, Al Qaeda’s core leaders, including the late Osama Bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahri, have never been clear about the organization’s mission in the Levant. Al-Zawahiri recently called for war to oust Assad, but the region rarely has featured in his messages and directives or those of other senior Al Qaeda leaders. Things could change, however, with the recent release of Al Qaeda ideologue Abu Musab al-Suri from a Syrian prison. Some say he was freed by the regime to do its bidding and lend further credence to the notion that Al Qaeda has infiltrated the rebellion. Regardless of the circumstances of his release, al-Suri will play an active role in convincing his fellow travelers in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan that the Syrian uprising presents a unique opportunity to establish a strong base in the Levant.

Starting Small

It will take a new strategic approach and an enormous amount of effort by Al Qaeda to create a durable and solid presence inSyria and the Levant. The strategy allegedly adopted so far by the terrorist organization for the region—going for smaller, underground terrorist cells as opposed to larger, overt insurgent movements—is arguably working, and there is no evidence to suggest it will change. Al Qaeda cells operate in Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and now possibly Syria, and they can be activated whenever the need arises. These cells may not win widespread support or gain control over territory, but they surely can create enough damage to cause massive instability. Al Qaeda’s central leadership seems to have decided that for now it can live with that tradeoff.

Whatever presence Al Qaeda may have in Syria is likely to be small but may still be deadly.Syria could turn into another Iraq, especially if sectarian violence reaches new highs and Ayman al-Zawahiri and his senior partners decide to invest in a strategic foothold in theLevant. But Al Qaeda is not there yet—and history and regional realities suggest a large expansion is a long way off.

Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah.