Many fundamentalist groups seeking to oust Syrian regime
Many Islamists, some linked to al-Qaeda, are involved in the Syrian conflict, writes MICHAEL JANSENin Damascus
THE GRADUAL loss of control by Damascus of expanding enclaves of territory to rebels seeking the Syrian government’s overthrow has led to growing involvement of al-Qaeda and ultra-orthodox Sunni Salafi fighters in the 16-month conflict.
Al-Qaeda made its presence known last December with twin suicide bombings in Damascus that killed 44. Claims by affiliates were taken seriously by both the Syrian and US governments.
January and February suicide bombings, a hallmark of the Iraqi al-Qaeda franchise, were also sourced to al-Qaeda’s jihadis.
There were two developments in February that seem to have spurred al-Qaeda involvement – the release from prison in Aleppo of strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, and the call of the parent movement’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join the jihad against Syria’s “pernicious, cancerous regime”.
His appeal was echoed in a recent video featuring the “Soldiers of the Omar Farouq Brigade in Syria,” named after an al-Qaeda figure slain in Iraq in 2006. The video targeted potential Turkish recruits and depicted the training fighters undergo in Syria. Turks were said to be among those shown.
Jihadis or mujahideen see the struggle for Syria as a battle in the long drawn-out war for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate and the cleansing of Dar al-Islam, the Muslim world, of western political control and social and cultural influences.
The New York Times quoted Iraq-based al-Qaeda operative Abu Thuha as saying: “Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine.”
Alarm bells began to ring seriously in Washington when jihadis captured the western Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria. The fact that al-Qaeda is now operating in western Syria, far from the Iraqi border on the east, is of concern.
Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s aide Izzat al-Shahbandar stated, “Al-Qaeda that is operating in Iraq is the same as that which is operating in Syria.” There are a number of al-Qaeda affiliates – in addition to al- Qaeda in Syria, an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq – operating in Syria, in addition to the Omar Farouk Brigade. The most mentioned are the Nusra Front for the Liberation of the People of the Levant, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, the Baraa ibn Malid Martyrdom Brigade, and, most recently, Liwa al-Islam (Brigade of Islam), the group – along with the Free Syrian Army – that laid claim to the Damascus bombing which killed four senior Syrian security figures on July 18th.
The Nusra Front seems to be the most high-profile of these affiliates. It has asserted responsibility for four of the 10 suicide bombings carried out in Syria. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades was established in Iraq and has moved into the Syrian theatre over the past 16 months.
The Martyrdom Brigade was a suicide group that joined al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2005. Liwa al-Islam appears to be a recent creation.
These groups, which have Iraqi foundations and count foreign fighters in their ranks, have made a serious attempt to recruit Syrians.
Furthermore, Syria’s eastern border with Iraq is with Sunni majority provinces where al-Qaeda operates.
In addition to al-Qaeda, there are independent jihadi groups, like the al-Noor Brigades, and Muslim Brotherhood units linked with the rebel Free Syrian Army – all of which have the same methods and agenda. They also share the same sponsors – Qatar, Saudi Arabia, figures in the United Arab Emirates and fundamentalists elsewhere.
The fundamentalists have been encouraged by the emergence from the underground through the Arab Spring of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in North Africa, and of various Salafi groups in these countries.
Fundamentalists believe history is on their side because secular, authoritarian, nationalist leaders are toppling one by one due to their failure to deliver economic and social justice, responsive and clean governance, independence and the liberation of Palestine.