Experts are now worrying that al-Qaida’s gains in Syria represent “the greatest threat to U.S. national security.”
While fighting has intensified recently between Syrian government troops and rebels throughout the country, the most significant development to date are attacks by mainly al-Qaida-linked fighters striking at the heartland of President Bashar Assad’s government and his Alawite base of support in Latakia province.
It’s more evidence that al-Qaida fighters are gaining the upper hand over secular Syrian rebels in the battle to topple Assad that has entered its third year. Both local and foreign al-Qaida militants among the rebels are also proving to be the most daring in striking strategic government strongholds. Many believe the end goal is to turn Syria into a new extremist haven.
Counter-terrorism officials told the New York Times that more than 6,000 foreign jihadists have already streamed into Syria, saying the influx represented “greater numbers than went into Iraq at the height of the insurgency there against the American occupation.” They say the Syrian conflict could be developing into one of the biggest terrorist threats in the world today.
Political analyst Rami Khouri of the American University in Beirut called the bold militant assault in Latakia province in past days not merely “dramatic,” but meriting “strategic significance by striking at the heartland of the Alawites, Assad and the regime.”
“Several attacks taking place simultaneously by different groups is significant at a time when the regime was gaining militarily,” Khouri said, pointing to the technical capability and strategic planning by rebels forces which experienced losses since the regime’s retaking of Qusair near the border with Lebanon in June.
Now, militant fighters reached dangerously close to Qardaha, a predominantly Alawite region where the elder Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria autocratically from 1970 to 2000, was born and buried.
Mainly al-Qaida-linked fighters captured some 11 villages in a mountainous area north of Latakia, but Assad’s military hit back hard, prompting fierce fighting that left dozens dead on both sides. Syrian warplanes targeted fighters in several villages to protect the region, which is the homeland of his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam that accounts for 12 percent of Syria’s 21 million people.
Many impoverished mountain villagers have not benefited from the prosperity enjoyed by the Assad clan and its allies over the past 40 years in the city of Latakia, one of Syria’s premier seaside resorts on the Mediterranean. The sun-drenched port is famed for its more secular culture where men and women freely mix in cafes, music festivals and at the state-run university.
The tension, however, was palpable between a Sunni Muslim fighter who confronted an old Alawite man in one of the recently overrun villages as seen on a video uploaded on YouTube. “Are you an Alawite?” the rebel asked gruffly.
“My fellow countryman, we are all God’s creatures,” the old man simply responded.
“Since you have answered in God’s name, we will not kill you because the Prophet Muhammad has instructed not to harm women, children and the elderly,” the fighter tersely replied. But other minority Syrians have not been so lucky.
Al-Qaida dominance in Syria
Al-Qaida-linked militants, sometimes fighting alongside the mainly secular Free Syrian Army, have already tried to impose their rigid brand of Islamic sharia law on Syrians in areas they have captured. The jihadists have openly expressed their intentions to establish an Islamic state in the country.
“We won’t allow them to create their own state on our territory,” a secular Syrian rebel recently told Al-Jazeera, referring to groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria, Jaish al-Muhajireen wa Ansar and others. But such a claim by Syria’s nationalists may be easier said than done.
These al-Qaida offshoots possess more and better weapons, a reliable flow of funds and are not afraid to die in suicide car bombings and other audacious acts against regime troops. Some have executed both government soldiers and their secular Syrian rebel counterparts.
Some anti-Assad activists have denounced militant efforts to impose strict religious rules on Syria’s long-standing tolerant society — and so risk kidnapping and imprisonment for their contrary views. Meanwhile, reports have emerged of an alleged massacre last week of 450 Kurds in the village of Tal Abyad near the Turkish border and the kidnapping of 200 Kurds near Aleppo by militants. Syria’s minority Christian population has also been victims of targeted extremist violence.
“If Assad is dislodged, you then have a battle for Syria between those who want to impose some kind of conservative Islamic order against those who are seeking a more moderate political space in a new order,” said Syria analyst Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
He and other analysts believe that even if Assad holds on to some degree of power, the Syrian dictator will never regain complete control over the whole of the country. “There will be an ongoing conflict for the future shape of Syria,” Barnes-Dacey predicted. He and others foresee a break-up of Syria into distinct religious and ethnic entities.
The regime controls much of southern and central Syria, while fighters hold northern areas near the Turkish border and along the Euphrates River valley towards Iraq. Northeastern Syria is now under increasingly Kurdish control.
“The lack of central control has allowed extremist groups to flourish in Syria and take advantage of the territory that they have now established by the power of the gun,” Barnes-Dacey said.
“They have established a foothold already and they won’t be easily dislodged. They view Syria as a great opportunity,” he said. “They have established power on the ground and they are not willing to give that up, particularly in some northern areas of the country.”
Radical genie out of the bottle
Fear in the U.S. and its Western allies that extremists could gain the upper hand in Syria’s conflict made them back away from providing lethal aid repeated requested by the opposition to fight regime troops. That decision may have cost Washington and its allies the chance to influence the battle in Syria.
Juan Zarate, a former senior counterterrorism official in the George W. Bush administration told the New York Times that Syria is at the center of an “arc of instability,” and “in that zone, you may have the regeneration and resurrection of a new brand of al-Qaida.”
Former CIA deputy chief Michael Morell has warned that if the Syrian government — which possesses chemical and other advanced weapons — collapses the country could become a new safe haven for al-Qaida, supplanting Pakistan. The volatile mix of al-Qaida extremism and Syria’s civil war now “poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security,” he told the Wall St. Journal last week.
Despite President Obama’s claim that the core al-Qaida has been “decimated” and “metastasized” into regional groups that threaten the U.S. on a smaller scale than the original organization, the terrorist grouping may have simply transformed itself into a multi-headed beast.
Rapidly unfolding events in Syria, Yemen and even Egypt point to a more decentralized al-Qaida — with a less rigid command and control structure — that has spread its ideology and geographic reach by working through affiliates that nonetheless still threaten the United States and the West.
Last week, the U.S. closed 19 embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa due to what it described as an imminent al-Qaida terror threat emanating from the group’s affiliate in Yemen. Yemeni authorities have since said it foiled the plot, described as one of the most serious since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.
Even while the affiliate, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, remains the target of U.S. drone strikes and Yemeni military assaults, it continues to seek to carve out new territory in the impoverished nation for its operations.
Meanwhile, amid the political turmoil engulfing Egypt following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi last month, al-Qaida-linked militants have stepped up attacks in the lawless Sinai Peninsula. An al-Qaida-linked group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, alleged that its fighters were the target of a reported Israeli drone strike in the area, killing eight people over the weekend.
So far, recent Sinai attacks have taken about 62 lives, officials say, not counting the additional 60 militant suspects the Egyptian authorities claim to have killed. The New York Times reports that there has also been a troubling rise in attacks on Christians, who are fleeing the area in large numbers.
Egypt’s military and security forces have long fought Islamic militants in the northern half of the peninsula. But analysts said that Saturday’s operation might signal a rare Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation against the militants in the restive border zone.
But analysts believe that northern Sinai is fast becoming “a dark harbinger of what could follow elsewhere in Egypt if the interim government cannot peacefully resolve its standoff with the Islamist protesters camped out in Cairo,” according to Robert F. Worth, writing in the New York Times.
Ordinary Egyptians have expressed concerns that pro-Morsi demonstrators and others might resort to carrying out suicide attacks if the crisis continues. Equally worrying, Richard Engel of NBC reported that authorities recently arrested two Egyptians at Cairo Airport who had traveled from Chechnya, a focal point of Islamic unrest in the Caucasus. Customs officials reportedly found military uniforms, a black al-Qaida flag and computer memory cards containing radical propaganda in their suitcases. They also discovered counterfeit passports the men had stashed in the trash.
The discovery underscores the specter of an insurgency breaking out in Egypt as the political situation there deteriorates.
This article originally was published Aug. 12, 2013.