Now al-Qaeda joins the fight against Assad in Syria?

With the UN failing, and the international community in no mood for intervention, Syria could be about to get a lot worse

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The latest suicide bombing in Damascus claimed 55 lives
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Ghaffar Hussain
On 14 May 2012 14:03

The bad news is that with the UN peace keeping mission failing, the international community in no mood for intervention and the civil war dragging on, the situation in Syria is getting increasingly desperate. The worse news is that this dire status quo is just about to get bloodier.

A Jihadist group calling itself, ‘Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant’ has claimed that it was behind the recent suicide bombing in Damascus which claimed the lives of 55 people. These were the deadliest attacks since the uprising began. It is also believed to be behind other similar bombings targeting the capital city.

The al-Nusra Front is a shadowy Jihadist group and not much is known about them. They are believed to be linked to al-Qaeda, they have very similar tactics and most of their recruits are Syrian natives. Their media output is very poor and unprofessional, which may suggest that they are newly formed, set up to take advantage of the chaos in Syria.

This is a trend that is now well-established in the MENA region. Whenever a country in that part of the world begins the perilous descent into chaos and in-fighting, al-Qaeda linked groups suddenly emerge and start carrying out suicide bombings. This happened in Iraq, it is happening in Yemen and, to a lesser extent, in Libya.

Also, in February of this year, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, urged Jihadist fighters based in neighbouring countries to go to Syria and focus on fighting the regime there. Al-Qaeda has learned from its mistakes in Iraq, namely relying on too many foreign fighters, targeting too many civilians and losing the support of the locals, and thus will be seeking to make amends.

This could lead to a temporary lull in attacks in Iraq since many of the fighters there are from Syria. Also, since Syria was so keen to allow fighters to cross its border to fight in Iraq, I doubt the Iraqis would be doing much to stop these fighters heading back for the border.

The rise of al-Qaeda linked operatives also leads to a rise in sectarian killings, since Jihadists reject nation states and view people through their religious affiliation. The Al-Nusra Front has already stated, “We tell this regime: Stop your massacres against the Sunni people. If not, you will bear the sin of the Alawites. What is coming will be more calamitous, God willing" (source BBC).

So, after initial confusion and reluctance, it seems international Jihadists have now found their role in the Arab Spring. Jihadists did try to take credit for the initial uprisings, claiming that their actions have given the Arab people the confidence to rise up and demand regime change. However, Jihadists can only thrive in anarchy; where there are elections, a political process and intact security services, they cannot take advantage. Syria, therefore, could become the new battleground for international Jihadists.

Al-Qaeda involvement, however, could also strengthen the hand of the regime in Syria. Bashar al-Assad can now credibly claim, as he has always done, that his forces are fighting al-Qaeda. That does give him a degree of immunity from western criticism and makes life a little easier for his backers in Moscow and Beijing. If Jihadist attacks, in the name of the uprising, continue to take lives in Syria than the population could also start to side with the regime.

This is a negative development as far as Syrian freedom fighters in the north are concerned. They have already attempted to blame the suicide bombings in Damascus on the regime, claiming that it is using them to distract attention from its actions in Hama and Homs. The residents of Damascus, on the other hand, are starting to direct their wrath towards Gulf States such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are supporting the uprising in their country. Anything is possible in a region rife with conspiracy theory.

In summary, the Syrian people have been let down badly. Their people are being massacred and tortured for expressing their views through peaceful protest. The international community has expressed concern but taken no practical steps to end the bloodshed. Some have even made the deadly mistake of relying on a dysfunctional organisation called the United Nations – an organisation whose decision making is shaped by some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Al-Qaeda’s foray into Syria has been allowed by international inaction and it will not be a pretty sight. It will lead to the taking of more innocent lives in brutal fashion and it could make life easier for the regime and harder for the opposition. That is a point that the anti-interventionist lobby needs to reflect on.

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator

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