A recent spate of suicide bombings in the Syrian capital of Damascus is fueling a debate over whether Al Qaeda and its affiliates have infiltrated the 10-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The Assad regime insists that the opposition protests that have rocked the country since March are being driven by “armed terrorist groups” and “Islamic militants.” It has blamed Al Qaeda for three suicide bomb attacks over the past month against security offices in Damascus, which left 70 people dead.
Analysts say there is little proof – at least for now – that suggests that Al Qaeda, or its militant affiliates, are seeking to play an active role in the Syrian uprising. But the Assad regime has an ambiguous history with Sunni militants – serving at times as suspected patron and at other times as bitter enemy – and a descent into civil war could draw Al Qaeda and like-minded groups into the fray.
“I haven’t seen any evidence of Al Qaeda being responsible for any of the events that have happened in the Middle East against these embattled regimes,” says Imad Salamey, associate professor of politics at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. “These leaders have an interest in exaggerating the role Al Qaeda is playing.
According to Lebanese cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri, former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had made the decision not to become involved in the uprisings sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East before he was killed in a US raid in May.
“If the Sunnis in Syria had called for Al Qaeda’s help, Al Qaeda would be everywhere in Syria,” says the Salafist sheikh. “But Al Qaeda did make research among Sunnis in Syria and found that they were not in favor of a violent uprising.”
Nonetheless, Al Qaeda has clearly stated its support for the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime. The bulk of the opposition is composed of the majority Sunni community while the backbone of the regime is drawn from the minority Alawite sect, an obscure religion that follows some tenets of Shiite Islam and whose adherents comprise about 12 percent of Syria’s population.
That sectarian polarization has intensified and aggravated the struggle in Syria, especially as some conservative Sunnis view Alawites as apostates.
In a videotaped message issued in July 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s new leader, applauded Syrian antiregime protestors, but implicitly admitted that his organization was absent from the confrontation.
“God knows that if it were not for the raging war with the New Crusades in which we are engaged, … my brothers and I would be at your side today, in your midst defending you with our necks and chests,” he said.
As the violence has steadily worsened, some commentators on jihadist websites are openly calling for waging a jihad against the Assad regime. In November, Osama al-Shehabi, the leader of Al Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, called for an armed struggle in Syria.
“The regime’s brutal oppression of the Syrian people proves that it is time to change direction and use real weapons against the regime,” he wrote in an article that was published by the Shumoukh al-Islam online forum. “The revolution is a jihad; it is a war; prepare for jihad for God; scrutinize your intentions and take up arms, for they are your obligation.”
Last month the jihadist website Minbar al-Tawhid Wa al-Jihad posted a fatwa, or religious edict, by an influential Salafist cleric, in which he sanctioned the use of violence against the Assad regime.
“Why do you insist on confining yourselves to peaceful protests?” wrote Sheikh Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti. “Is it a disgrace to kill those who kill us?... It has come to a stage where nothing will avail except taking up arms.”
Syria has a troubled and complex history of dealing with militant Sunni Islamists. In the early 1980s, the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood conducted a campaign of assassinations and bombings against regime targets before being ruthlessly crushed in the city of Hama in February 1982.
Syria’s ruling Baath Party espouses a secular Arab nationalist ideology which puts it firmly at odds with the Salafist jihadist credo of Al Qaeda. But the byzantine and ever-shifting politics of the Middle East can result in seemingly unlikely tactical arrangements.
Baathist Syria’s three-decade relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, on paper would seem improbable but it has proven to be one of the tightest and most enduring alliances in the region. Sometimes short-term mutual interests take precedence over ideological differences, which perhaps explains the Syrian regime’s alleged periodic tacit cooperation with Al Qaeda-inspired groups.
Damascus was repeatedly accused of facilitating the transfer of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq when Syria was under intense international pressure. Syria’s denials notwithstanding, the seizure by US troops in October 2007 of an Al Qaeda database recording details of nearly 700 Arab fighters – over 90 percent of whom were non-Syrians – showed that all of them had entered Iraq from Syria, even though explicit evidence of regime complicity was absent.
Similarly, the Syrian regime is thought to have dispatched Islamist militants into Lebanon in late 2006 in an attempt to destabilize the then-Western backed Lebanese government. The militants founded Fatah al-Islam, the ranks of which were swelled by dozens of jihadist volunteers over the following months and in summer 2007 fought a brutal three-month battle against the Lebanese army.
The fact that Shehabi, the leader of Fatah al-Islam, today can call for jihad against the Assad regime underlines the transitory nature of such alliances, analysts say.
“It’s basically a marriage of convenience. The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a book on Syria under Bashar al-Assad. “But the Assad regime is a master at using such groups ruthlessly and even cynically to justify its grip on power and achieve its objectives in neighboring states. It’s one of the most overlooked parts of its foreign policy because backing such groups seems to clash with its basic Baathist secular tenets at home.”
The ambiguity surrounding the Assad regime’s connections to militant jihadists has fueled accusations and counteraccusations over who bore responsibility for the recent suicide bombings in Damascus.
“The regime blasts on Al Qaeda, while the opposition blames the regime for staging the attack,” says Mr. Tabler. “The truth is likely much more complicated: The Assad regime loses or loosens its control on such groups; they carry out suicide attacks in Syria. The regime has plausible deniability and they use the attacks to rally people around the regime.”
Regardless of the provenance of the Damascus bombings, violence is worsening in Syria. Nabil Elaraby, the Arab League chief, warned on Thursday that Syria could be heading for civil war.
“Yes, I fear a civil war and the events that we see and hear about could lead to a civil war,” he told Egypt’s Al-Hayat television. “Any problems in Syria will have consequences for the neighboring states.”
The bulk of the hit-and-run attacks against the Syrian security forces are claimed by the rebel Free Syrian Army, composed of loose-knit squads of Army deserters. But as the conflict intensifies and drifts toward possible civil war amid hardening sectarian attitudes, it could grant space for the emergence of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups in Syria.
“The moment it becomes a civil war, I think Al Qaeda will be the first on the front line because that is the ideal environment for Al Qaeda,” says Sheikh Bakri, the Salafist cleric. “It will become like Iraq.”