Fact or fiction: jihadis in Syria?Posted: 15/05/2012
By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East
Despite efforts by many peaceful Syrian activists to regain the upper hand under the cover the UN-endorsed Annan plan, the uprising in Syria is growing in complexity and violence. This downwards spiral is plainly illustrated by the rise in car bombs, including those which exploded in Damascus last week, killing dozens. This may well be an ominous sign.
The latest bombings, ostensibly targeted at intelligence headquarters, were initally claimed by the new, shadowy group, the Jabhat Al-Nusra li Ahl Ash-Sham, or the Support Front for the People of Syria (although according to some reports it has since denied involvement).
The Assad regime has been quick to blame jihadi elements linked to the opposition. This fits neatly with the regime’s attempt to ensure the loyalty of urban Sunnis and minorities fearful of Islamist rule by portraying all opposition as radical, violent and foreign-inspired.
Just as unsurprising is the opposition’s accusation that the bombings were the work of Assad’s manipulative and nefarious security services. This is not entirely implausible, given their record and Assad’s previous sponsorship of jihadi outfits operating in Lebanon and Iraq. However, a more likely scenario is that those jihadi outfits, which never had much in common with the Alawite Assad beyond an anti-American agenda, have simply turned against their former patron.
The reality is that in Syria’s ever-murkier environment, where a constellation of rebel forces fights a multitude of security and paramilitary forces, making a definitive judgement is impossible. US intelligence has reported that al-Qaeda members now operate in Syria. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has urged all good Muslims to fight against Assad’s ‘pernicious, cancerous regime’; and foreign fighters have indeed joined the fray, although in small numbers and in a largely ad hoc manner. (Several Tunisians were recently killed in Syria, and there is evidence of Iraqi, Lebanese and Libyan jihadis, too.)
Al-Qaeda-like groups may well have decided that Syria offers a unique opportunity. The weakening of Syria’s once-overwhelming police state provides an operational opening. The Alawite sect, seen as heretical by fundamentalist Sunnis, dominates the regime. The cause of the Syrian revolution has captivated Arab audiences who have turned against al-Qaeda because of the suffering it inflicted on other Muslims. Individuals from Gulf states are already donating funds to various opposition groups.
Do most Syrian revolutionaries welcome the rise of jihadi groups? Despite their current travails, this is unlikely. Syrian society is more diverse and tolerant than usually acknowledged, although the violence of the past 15 months is undermining this. Syrians don’t romanticise jihadi groups. They have seen the havoc they wreak next door in Iraq. There is no foreign occupier in Syria, so the risk to Syrian civilians is enormous.
More fundamentally, jihadi involvement in the Syrian uprising will be counterproductive. Jihadis cannot tip the military balance but will alienate the minorities and social groups upon whose continued loyalty Assad relies and help the regime paint the uprising in sectarian terms. As a result, other Islamist forces, like the Muslim Brotherhood or units of the Free Syrian Army, will probably try to isolate and uproot jihadi fighters.