By Fawaz A. Gerges
Like many details surrounding the current violence in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl Ash-Sham or the Nusra Front, a group which has claimed responsibility for recent al-Qaeda styled bombings in Damascus, is extremely shadowy and prime for speculation. Al-Qaeda-inspired or not, Nusra should not be invested with any particular significance: there are dozens of oppositional factions now operating independently in Syria. Most eschew al-Qaeda’s tactics and ideology and are either religious-nationalists or secular-minded activists.
Al-Qaeda has never been a key player in Syria. Yet as the crisis has drawn on, it has turned from a political struggle to an armed conflict, bringing the consequences of chaos and desperation in tow. More and more protesters have taken up arms to defend their communities. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is only one among many armed units operating independently from one another.
And increasing evidence points towards 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. On 18 May, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he believed al-Qaeda was behind two recent bombing attacks in Damascus. As the Syrian conflict escalates and the country descends into all-out sectarian strife, al-Qaeda-like factions will go to further lengths to establish a foothold in the country. Their ability to do so will depend on how Syrians will react to these foreign fighters and whether the aggrieved Sunni community will provide shelter.
So far, there have been 11 car bombings in Syria, some of which are coordinated attacks which killed hundreds of civilians and security personnel. Although it is difficult to ascertain the identity of the perpetrators, some of the attacks like last week’s twin car bombings near a military-intelligence branch in a Damascene neighbourhood, which reportedly killed more than 50 and wounded hundreds, bear the hallmark of al-Qaeda. This is not surprising because the raging war in Syria has taken a sectarian Sunni-Shia bent, which allows al-Qaeda, a Sunni-based movement, to exploit and position itself as a defender of ahl al-sunna or the Sunni community.
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, urging Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join the uprisings. “Instead, depend on Allah alone and then on your sacrifices, resistance, and steadfastness.”
Al-Qaeda’s alleged 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 regime 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. Thus, Syria has now become a battlefield, a war-by-proxy, in which al-Qaeda is labouring very hard to find a new refuge, and to portray itself as a guardian of Sunni Muslims – objectives which lie in stark contrast to those of the majority of Syrian protestors.
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 theatre whereby multiple elements, not just al-Qaeda, but also fighters of Salafi genealogy, are appearing. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, had fewer than 50 fighters in Iraq. 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 mobilisation along Sunni-Shia lines, drew large number of Sunni Iraqis and Libyans, Tunisians, Saudis, Yemenis, Jordanians, Palestinians, Moroccans who flooded the country to defend ahl al-sunna seen as being victimized by both the Americans and the Shia, 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 show 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 Shia, together with al-Qaeda’s violation of tribal norms. Al-Qaeda has never regained its footing.
For Zawahiri and like-minded jihadists, Syria provides an opportunity to embed itself in a local conflict and establish a presence in a strategic theatre. Zawahiri and his cohorts know well the importance of what they call al-hadina al-sha’biya (popular embrace or base) and will try hard to appeal to the Sunni community in Syria by leveraging 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.
There is a real danger that if Syria descends into all-out civil war like Iraq between 2003 and 2007, al- Qaeda will likely find home and become a hub for fighters from neighbouring countries. This is a frightening development, one that plays straight into the hands of the Syrian regime. In a 16 May interview on Russian state news channel, Rossiya 24, President Bashar al-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.
With each bombing and attack, both sides blame one another, only adding fire to the regime and a self-perpetuating rhetoric. Thus far, most Syrian groups have rejected al-Qaeda’s ideology and tactics. 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.
As spring turns to prolonged winter, suicide bombers and cars laden with thousands of kilos of explosives may kill randomly, terrorize and attempt to deepen the communal rift in Syria. But the future of al-Qaeda in the war-torn country will depend, in the end, on how the Sunni community in Syria reacts to the arrival of jihadi fighters: without a fertile soil and an accepting host, al-Qaeda and other extremist elements will not survive the longest of winters.
Fawaz A. Gerges is the Director of LSE’s Middle East Centre and a Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at LSE. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda (Oxford University Press, 2011).