Al-Qaeda’s rise in Syria
The recent wave of suicide bombings in Syria, along with Lebanon’s seizure of a weapons-laden cargo ship intended for Syrian rebels, underscores the
infiltration of not only Sunni-jihadist ideology into Syria, but also weapons, tactics and fighters from throughout the Middle East. Those forces, along with radical Syrian Islamists, are likely set to intensify their attacks on both civilian and government targets in an attempt to turn Syria, although unlikely, into the new Iraq.
Unlike Egypt, the Syrian government proved to be too entrenched to be removed by civilian protests and international pressure alone. This realization and an increasingly brutal government crackdown spawned an inevitable militarization of the conflict, additionally fueled and intensified by Sunni elements throughout the Middle East, mainly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya. Although Sunni militants are no longer able to defeat Syria’s well-armed, motivated and efficient fighting force in battle, they are leaning toward a strategy where bombings and other asymmetrical attacks on government and civilian targets alike are likely to become the norm for the near future in Syria.
With that being said, the Syrian opposition remains active and capable of carrying out its activities, but unfortunately for them, the Assad government is not going anywhere anytime soon. While many Sunni oppositionists still yearn for greater personal and political rights, there was a realization early on that the situation was so that no such occurrence was likely unless the secular and tightly-knit Alawites were driven from power. Meanwhile, Syria has emerged far beyond simply a struggle for individual and political rights, but into a regional power struggle — pitting the Alawites and their regional allies — against a surging Sunni-Islamist bloc determined to return Syria to their Islamist sphere.
Stepping back, it is important to note that Sunni militancy and political Islam are not foreign threats to the Alawite regime. For over four decades, the Assad family has defended against such threats and has conducted numerous military operations, including the 1982 Hama Massacre, to suppress them. In that time, the primary threat to Alawite rule was the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike in 1982, however, the Brotherhood has far more support today and is on the rise throughout the region — yet so are other and even more radical Islamist sects.
While the opposition continues to deny any role in the recent bombings, the sectarian context of the crisis, which stirs tensions across borders in tandem with rising extremism across the Muslim world, makes such claims highly unlikely. Moreover, a Sunni militant group, the al-Nusra Front, has already claimed responsibility for last week’s Damascus blast on a jihadist website, in addition to previous suicide bombings.
Syrian Sunnis are receiving support from throughout the Muslim world. From Chechnya to Libya, Sunnis are determined to see the “heretical” Alawite regime ousted and many are willing to support or implement more militant attacks to do so. In addition, it has been widely reported that there has been an influx of al-Qaeda fighters from neighboring Iraq into Syria, and it is highly unlikely they came to hold signs in protest. Rather, it is more likely that they are bringing their holy war — one that previously targeted Shiites, Christians and Americans in Iraq — to the Alawites, Hezbollah and Iran, in Syria.
In addition to foreign fighters, many Syrian Sunnis have become radicalized and followers of jihadist doctrines as well. This is indicated by overtly Islamist names of many Free Syrian Army brigades, their appearance, declarations, along with the growing extremist trend throughout the region, which has not bypassed Syria. As stated before, political Islam has resorted to violence in Syria before, but unlike earlier times, the truly potent threat stems not from the Muslim Brotherhood, but from Salafism and Wahhabism elements now inside Syria.
Although the Brotherhood is traditionally the most prominent Syrian-Sunni party, the more radical Wahhabi and Salafi sects are now on the rise in Syria. Moreover, they carry with them the capability of unleashing an unrelenting holy war. Their rise there and subsequent holy war in Syria become all the more likely given the ascension of jihadist beliefs, promoted alongside the “Arab Spring,” throughout the Middle East.
In the end, although the opposition has failed both peacefully and militarily to oust the Assad regime, radical elements within Syria and abroad are ready to promote and implement the use of more aggressive militant attacks within Syria. Their likely aim is to weaken and erode the Alawite regime in Syria in the long term, so much so, to eventually turn the country into the next Iraq.
(Daniel Brode is an intelligence analyst with Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm based in the Middle East. He blogs for The Chronicle at thejewishchronicle.net.)