Friday, August 31, 2012

Al Qaeda and the Syrian Opposition: A Terrorist Triumph

In a recent CFR article, Ed Husain argued that Syria’s ongoing civil war is overshadowing the infiltration of Al Qaeda into the rebel forces, and they are now winning the ideological battle for the revolution. Although acknowledged by western policymakers including CIA Director Leon Panetta, the presence of the terrorist group has not stopped leaders such as French President Francois Hollande from declaring that they would recognize any interim government formed by the Syrian government. Such a move would completely disregard the fact that no interim government could be formed without the support of the well-organized, amply funded and armed Syrian Al Qaeda.

As early as May, Panetta admitted that the U.S. believes that Al Qaeda has established a solid presence in Syria among the ranks of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, but that the nature of their movements and organization were still cloaked in mystery. The group believed to be behind the Al Qaeda attacks of recent months calls itself Jabhat al-Nusra l’al-Ahl al-Sham, or Victory Front of the Syrian People. Al-Sham is the traditional name for the region encompassing Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Israel, a reference to the group’s long-term goal of redrawing the regional borders starting with a liberated Syria.

An FSA fighter on the streets of Homs. Photo by Bo Yaser.

The term “liberation” is, of course, misleading when it comes to Al Qaeda. What “liberation” means to them is a casting off of both Asad and Western influence, to be replaced with a strict form of Sunni Islamic law, a totalitarian religious government, and a continuation of jihad waged against countries like Israel. Jabhat al-Nusra benefits from many of the same circumstances that allowed Al Qaeda to gain a foothold in Afghanistan in the 1980s: a welcoming population, ideological appeal, a steady supply of weapons and money from Arab donors, a pre-existing conflict in need of recruits, and Western reluctance to interfere. Much like the Taliban discovered their regime could not succeed without the Al Qaeda mujahideen, any interim government will find itself unable to dislodge the extremist elements within the opposition once they have become a crucial part of its operations.

According to Husain, the group had already conducted 66 attacks in Syria by June, including many car bombings that the Asad regime was quick to publicize for the international community as terrorist attacks. The global community for its part is even less likely to give aid to a Syrian opposition it views as infiltrated by extremist Salafi jihadists. Overlapping political affiliations in Syria already make any direct support of the opposition complicated at the very least; that the likely outcome of such aid would see U.S. weapons in the hands of a group like Al Qaeda precludes such support from becoming reality. After all, America learned its lesson the hard way in Afghanistan when the mujahideen it had armed against the Soviets became the terrorist group responsible for 9/11 and some of the most fervently anti-American organizations on the planet. Many of the Syrian jihadists are thought to be from Anbar Province in Iraq, and as such they are not an unfamiliar enemy to the United States.

The Syrian opposition itself is fully aware of how precarious its position is, especially given that it will eventually need outside support to survive. It has deliberately tried to hide the Al Qaeda-associated groups within its ranks from the view of the media. When reporters discovered opposition soldiers sporting Al Qaeda’s flag in a neighborhood in Damascus, they were ushered away by opposition leaders before they could interview the fighters. The Free Syrian Army has rejected videos and photos blatantly showing opposition soldiers wearing Al Qaeda symbols and insignia.

Syrian opposition fighters stand behind an Al Qaeda flag.

Yet the evidence is mounting that without Al Qaeda, the resistance would be nowhere near as successful as it has been.  Which means that Jabhat al-Nusra has the power and the resources to demand a part in whatever government emerges from the Syria conflict. While Western countries have wasted no time disavowing Asad, they have been much slower to provide concrete support to the opposition forces that desperately need it. In part, the opposition can thank groups like Jabhat al-Nusra both for propping up the rebellion, and also, perhaps, condemning it.

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