On Tuesday, the New York Times published an excellent article on Al-Qaeda’s attempts to involve itself in the Syrian civil war. Since the beginning of this year, there is evidence that Al-Qaeda militants and other Sunni jihadists have taken the revolt against the Assad regime as an opportunity to strike against one of the secular Muslim governments they so infamously despise.
The majority of these militants have come across the border from Iraq (where there was just a spate of bombings that authorities are attributing to Al-Qaeda in Iraq), though there appear to be Syrians working with them. They have been focusing their attention on the north of the country—including Idlib, one of the centers of fighting—and have sought to make contacts with the Free Syrian Army and other anti-government factions.
Al-Qaeda’s interest in Syria is obvious: an essential part of the organization’s playbook for jihad* is to foment anarchy by undermining government authority wherever possible, and then using the ensuing power vacuum to bring themselves to power. (This is called idarat al-tawahhush, often translated as the ‘Management of Savagery’.) The Syrian civil war presents a perfect opportunity for bringing about anarchy, and Iraqi Al-Qaeda members have already expressed a desire to work to bring down the Assad regime.
While it’s unclear the degree to which these militants are involved in the rebellion—most of the evidence for Al-Qaeda’s participation is the appearance of Al-Qaeda flags in rebel camps and the use of suicide and car bombings against government targets—it is very much in Al-Qaeda’s interest to play up their role. A popular revolt against a loathed ‘apostate’ government is precisely what they have been trying to start since the organization’s very beginnings; that it had nothing to do with them is of little concern. Al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq are now putting out messages of overt support for the rebellion and claiming responsibility for attacks against the regime. (The obscure militant group Liwa’ al-Islam** claimed responsibility—perhaps fraudulent—for the bombing of Syrian intelligence offices in Damascus last week.) They are also using the conflict as a recruiting tool around the region.
It goes without saying that Al-Qaeda’s involvement is bad. The degree to which they are able to hijack this popular revolt against a corrupt regime will not only affect the rebels’ legitimacy, as well as their strength. Al-Qaeda’s participation in the revolt also lends credence to the government’s preferred narrative of this as sectarian conflict against foreign terrorists and militants. It’s far easier to justify the deployment of overwhelming force against fatalistic, violent fanatics bent on destruction than it is against a popular, pro-democratic revolution. And if the rebellion does succeed, any amount of Al-Qaeda involvement will undermine the process of forming a new government. (Some have already pointed out the potential parallels to post-Saddam Iraq.)
It is in virtually everyone’s (except maybe Assad himself) best interests to stop these militants, and—unlike in the UN Security Council—there is a way for the United States to do something about it. There remains a significant US military presence in the Persian Gulf, including the equivalent to one combat battalion in Kuwait, as well as two bases and several thousand US troops still in Iraq. The US could move to deploy a small number of troops and surveillance equipment to patrol the Syria-Iraq border in order to stop the flow of militants and matériel.
Such a move would help shore up regional stability—Al-Qaeda operating freely in Syria is no good for Iraq—while serving to keep the violence in Syria from escalating even faster. Care of course would have to be taken to show Assad that these moves are strictly to patrol the border and nothing more, but this is a real step the US could take to help the situation without making anything worse. And they get to capture some terrorists in the process.
I still believe that the Syrian civil war is not sectarian in nature, but it won’t necessarily stay that way. It should.
* You probably won’t wind up on a watch list for clicking here.
** You might wind up on a watch list for clicking here. NB: It’s in Arabic, and there are some graphic videos.