In an eight-minute video clip titled "Onward, Lions of Syria"
disseminated on the Internet Feb. 12, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri
expressed al Qaeda's support for the popular unrest in Syria. In it,
al-Zawahiri urged Muslims in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to aid the
Syrian rebels battling Damascus. The statement comes just days after a
McClatchy report quoted unnamed American intelligence officials as
saying that the Iraqi node of the global jihadist network carried out
two attacks against Syrian intelligence facilities in Damascus, while
Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi said in a recent
interview with AFP that Iraqi jihadists were moving fighters and weapons
into neighboring Syria.
Al Qaeda's long-term goal has been to oust Arab governments to
facilitate the return of a transnational caliphate. Its tactics have
involved mainly terrorism intended to cause U.S. intervention in the
region. Al Qaeda has hoped such interventions would in turn incite
popular uprisings that would bring down the Arab regimes, opening the
way for the jihadists to eventually take power. But the jihadist
network's efforts have failed and they have remained a marginal player
in the Arab world. By addressing Syria, al Qaeda hopes to tap into the
past year of Arab unrest, a movement in which it played little to no
The region's regimes have been on the defensive due to the rise of
political Islamism, growing public disillusionment and the sectarian
Sunni-Shiite split, though foreign military intervention has been
required to actually topple them, as we saw in Libya. Growing
uncertainty in the region and the gradual weakening of these regimes
gives jihadists an opportunity to reassert their relevance.
Al-Zawahiri's statement, however, represents a continuation of the
central leadership's inability to do more than issue taped statements
from its Pakistani hideouts, much less engage in strategic planning.
Jihadists and the Middle East Unrest
Al Qaeda's extreme transnational agenda always has had limited appeal
to the Arab masses. Popular unrest in Arab countries and the
empowerment of political Islamists via elections in Egypt and Tunisia
have underscored the jihadists' irrelevance to societies in the Islamic
world. The jihadists have failed to oust a sitting government anywhere
in the Islamic world, even in Afghanistan, where the Taliban's rise to
power in the mid-1990s occurred in a power vacuum. Recognizing their
limitations, jihadists have focused on conducting attacks intended to
create crises within target countries and in those countries' external
relations -- as is the case in Pakistan and Yemen. The jihadist hope has
been to create enough disorder that they would eventually be able to
This approach has proved difficult because Arab governments (despite
their weaknesses) have been resilient and societal fragmentation has not
worked to the advantage of jihadists. A second option has been to try
to take advantage of power vacuums that were created by other forces.
Iraq presented one such opportunity when U.S. forces ousted the Baathist
regime in 2003, allowing for the emergence of al Qaeda's then-most
active node. In Iraq, the country's Shiite majority posed a daunting
obstacle to the jihadists even before the jihadists alienated their
Iraqi Sunni allies to the point that they began siding with the
Americans, which led to a degradation of the jihadist network in Iraq.
By contrast, post-Gadhafi Libya, with its proliferation of militias --
some of which have both Islamist and jihadist tendencies -- could become
a more welcoming place for jihadists. But even if Libya were to descend
into Islamist militancy, geography would most likely prevent it from
spreading too far beyond Libya's borders.
However, given Syria's strategic location at the crossroads of so
many key geopolitical fault lines, the meltdown of the Syrian state
could easily result in a regional conflict. Most stakeholders oppose
foreign military intervention in Syria for this very reason. Many states
are eyeing the strategic goal of weakening Iran geopolitically through the ouster of the Alawite regime in Syria, but even that prospect may not be enough to offset the potential costs.
Jihadists' Prospects in Syria
With or without foreign intervention, jihadists in the region have
ample room for maneuver in Syria. The most significant regional jihadist
presence lies across the Syrian border in Iraq. These forces benefited
from Damascus' decision to back Sunni insurgents from 2003 to 2007. The
consolidation of Shiite power in Iraq greatly weakened these forces. Now
that Syria is unraveling and armed resistance to the regime is shaping
up, the jihadist flow is reversing direction, with jihadists now
entering Syria from Iraq.
Al Qaeda in Iraq sought to channel Sunni disenfranchisement at the
hands of the Shia, but now the group is looking to help Syrian Sunnis
empower themselves at the expense of the Iranian-backed Alawites.
Jihadist forces within striking distance of Syria are likely trying to
exploit the unpopularity of the Alawite regime among Sunnis as a way to
gain a foothold in Syria.
The level of factionalization among the Syrian rebels works to the
advantage of jihadists. Just as Iraq's Sunni tribal forces, Islamists
and Baathists cooperated with the jihadists against U.S troops and the
country's new Shia-dominated security forces, many elements within
Syria's Sunni population would be willing to align with jihadists given
the constraints they face in battling the well-armed Alawite-dominated
Complicating matters, the Syrian intelligence apparatus has long
cultivated ties with jihadists to insulate Damascus from jihadist
attacks and to use jihadists in proxy wars with Syria's neighbors. As
the state gets more and more embroiled in the internal conflict and the
intelligence apparatus gets bogged down with rising distractions at
home, these jihadist elements who have been on the payroll of Syrian
intelligence can turn against their former handlers along the lines of
what has happened in Pakistan and Yemen.
In addition to the jihadists based in Iraq and those who have long
worked with the Syrian regime, neighboring Jordan and Lebanon host
jihadist forces that also see opportunities in the Syrian unrest. Saudi
Arabia also has Sunni militants angered by the killing of Sunnis at the
hands of what they call the "infidel" Alawite regime. Just as the Saudis
redirected their own jihadists toward fighting in Iraq instead of Saudi
Arabia, Riyadh could encourage jihadist non-state actors to fight in
Syria. A recent fatwa from a number of top Sunni religious scholars
(including some prominent Saudis) forbidding membership in the Syrian
security forces would help in this regard.
Regional stakeholders are reluctant to see foreign military
intervention, leaving the option of covert support in the form of
supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels. Jihadists can be expected to
make use of such covert support as they work to insert themselves in
Syria. Even if weapons aren't intended for jihadists, the increased flow
of weapons and training into Syria provide an additional opportunity
for jihadists to build on this support by offering more battle-hardened
experience to a still disorganized armed resistance.
But while neither the domestic opponents of the Syrian regime nor the
international stakeholders have an interest in seeing Syria collapse
into sectarian conflict, jihadists want just that. As in Iraq, we could
see bombings against Alawites and other non-Sunni groups, including
Iranian and Hezbollah targets. This could be extended to attacks in
Lebanon in an attempt to stoke a regional sectarian conflict.
The jihadists could well succeed in sparking a regional sectarian
conflict that would involve multiple state and non-state actors and
would see Iran and Saudi Arabia locked in an intense proxy war. Western
or Israeli involvement in the conflict would please the jihadists even
It is therefore in the jihadists' interest to thwart a negotiated
settlement in Syria. Though it is still unclear who was responsible for
the Dec. 23, 2011, and Jan. 6 suicide attacks targeting Syrian
intelligence, they served the jihadists' purpose as they forced the
regime to crack down even harder on opponents (both armed and unarmed).
As the rebels and their supporters respond in kind, the jihadists can
thus instigate a cycle of violence leading to an intensely polarized
environment. The net result of such a process could be a meltdown of the
Syrian state and the rise of multiple armed factions, including
The collapse of the Syrian state in turn would allow the jihadists a
wide arena in which to operate, stretching from Lebanon to Iraq and
putting them very close to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian
territories -- the best theater a jihadist could ask for. However, the
nature of their capabilities, which will determine the extent of damage
they can cause in the Levant and the surrounding area, remains unclear.
It is by no means inevitable that jihadists will flourish in Syria
and use it as a launching pad to undermine regional security. The Syrian
state is still very much holding, and rebel forces remain divided and
do not appear capable of serious advances against the government.
The Risk of Regional Sectarian War
The Syrian upheaval takes place at a time of heightened geopolitical
and sectarian tensions in the region, where Iran and its largely Arab
Shiite allies are seeking to make inroads into the largely Sunni Arab
For Tehran and its main non-state proxy, the Lebanese Shiite Islamist
group Hezbollah, the survival of an Alawite regime in Syria that owes
its survival to Iran is critical. Tehran and Hezbollah both have a
military presence in Syria, which is assisting Damascus in its efforts
to contain the uprising. This is a major cause of concern for
international stakeholders, especially Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is the
regional player most enthusiastic about seeing regime change in Syria to
counter the threat from Iran.
For its part, the Iranian-aligned government in Iraq has a strong
incentive to make sure that jihadists in Iraq are not able to relocate
to Syria. Baghdad knows all too well that a collapse of the Syrian
regime would lead to a revival of Sunni resistance against the Shia, the
last thing the Iraqi Shia wish to see.
The United States and Turkey want to ensure that al Qaeda is unable
to hijack the Syrian uprising. But neither Washington nor Ankara has the
tools to ensure that jihadists don't make their way through Syria's
borders with Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The Saudis share this viewpoint,
but because they are somewhat insulated they would not mind just enough
chaos to bring down the Syrian regime, the closest Arab ally of Iran.
Jordan is already deeply fearful of the fallout from Syria while it
deals with growing unrest at home, and has a strong interest in making
sure Islamist militants on its soil do not use enter the Syrian
conflict. Meanwhile, Lebanon could descend into sectarian strife,
especially as the Syrian state's ability to maintain control there
erodes, the Saudis see an opportunity and the Iranians feel their
position becoming vulnerable.
Just how the many moving parts in this dynamic interact will
determine the extent to which Syria and its environs become a jihadist
playground. A potential collapse of the Syrian state greatly increases
the risk of a regional sectarian war that al Qaeda could greatly benefit
from. The challenge for those seeking regime change in Syria is thus
how to rid the country of Iranian influence while not opening the door
to transnational jihadism.
Kamran Bokhari is a Fellow at ISPU and the Toronto-based Vice-President
of Middle Eastern & South Asian Affairs with STRATFOR, a global
intelligence company headquartered in Austin, Texas.
This article was published by STRATFOR on February 14, 2012. Read it here.