Has America partnered with al Qaeda in Syria?
It is a twist of fate, or perhaps by design, that President Barack Obama’s Syria policy puts America in league with al Qaeda and other hardline Islamists helping to oust another dictator. We may come to regret our Syrian policy.
Our policies that help Islamists are becoming a dangerous pattern for American Mideast interests. Remember, President Obama called for the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and now that country has an anti-American Muslim Brotherhood-run government. Obama joined NATO’s efforts to oust Libya’s dictator and as a result we got the Benghazi consulate attack tragedy and another Arab country brimming with Islamic extremists and criminal militias.
The same is happening with Syria. During the presidential debate Obama said Syrian President Bashir al-Assad “has to go” and “we are going to do everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition.” But that commitment means something very different today than it meant last year when the Syrian opposition wasn’t so radicalized.
Over the past year Islamic extremists have nudged their way into the Syrian opposition, which means once the dictator is gone, Islamists will play a significant role in yet another Mideast country. The consequences are serious: another anti-American country in the region that will likely embrace Sharia (Islamic) law and host more terrorism.
The Arab Spring revolution movement reached Syria March 15, 2011, when residents took to the streets and that government responded with heavy-handed force. Today, a full-blown civil war rages in Syria and 40,000 people, mostly civilians, are dead, tens of thousands arrested, more than 400,000 Syrians have fled the country, and millions either need aid or are displaced domestically.
Now the fighting is spilling over into neighboring countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq in part because Syrian government forces are too weak to stamp out the rebellion. Meanwhile, the Syrian rebels are losing crucial public support because of their poorly planned missions, internal quarreling, senseless destruction and criminal behavior.
The rebels’ ineffectiveness coupled with the belief Syrians have been abandoned by the outside world created an opportunity for Islamists, especially al Qaeda, which is seeking to exploit the turmoil and reinvigorate its regional ambitions in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Last winter, American counterterrorism officials said Sunni militants with ties to al Qaeda in Iraq moved into Syria to exploit the political turmoil. By this summer, al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists were making inroads in Syria’s revolution such as using the border crossing site with Turkey, Bab al-Hawa, as a jihadist congregating point.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told USA Today, “As central authority collapses in Syria, jihadists of all kinds are streaming in (and) neighboring states have done little to stop this. In fact countries like Turkey have encouraged it by opening its border.”
Syria has also become a magnet for Sunni extremists in part because of the sectarian tensions across the border in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq is linking its ongoing insurgency with the Syrian civil war painting it as part of the regional sectarian conflict – Sunnis versus Shiites. That pits Iran, Shiite dominated Iraq and Iran’s terror proxy group Hezbollah in Lebanon with Assad’s Allawite clan against the majority Sunni population in Syria with its Sunni funders in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. No wonder the country and the region are on edge.
Al Qaeda’s growing role in Syria’s civil war helped change the conflict by injecting the use of suicide bombings. Beginning last December there have been at least 35 car bombings, four of which have been claimed by al Qaeda’s Syria Nusra Front. Even Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda’s new global leader, released an audio recording praising Syrian Sunni revolutionaries calling them “the lions of the Levant.”
The Sunni radicals are now embedding with Syria’s primary armed opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and as expected more Syrians involved in the armed struggle are becoming radicalized by that association. One reporter said, “The Islamic current has broken into the heart of this revolution.”
The FSA now embraces the jihadist fighters, according to an article in the Washington Post. They maintain “good coordination” and although the FSA may “reject the ideology of Islamist extremism,” the jihadists “fight without fear or hesitation.” An activist in Aleppo, Syria told the BBC: “The Islamist groups are helping us to get back our rights, whereas the West is watching from the sidelines.”
Recently an FSA commander’s attention was drawn to jihadists after they attacked Syrian government targets in Idlib Province. He invited the jihadists to join his forces stating “They are everywhere in Idlib (and) … they are becoming stronger, so we didn’t want any hostility or tension in our area.”
The jihadi are conducting independent operations as well, such as an attack in the al Ta’aneh area near Aleppo on Oct. 12. The jihadi al-Fajr Movement took responsibility for the operation and boasted on its website “Today Allah has allowed us to conquer (the base of) the air defense battalion near al-Ta’aneh.” The al-Fajr movement, a Salafi movement founded this year, pursues the establishment of an Islamic state.
Outside Syria, funding fuels the growing Islamist inspired fighting. Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to Syrian rebels go to Islamic jihadists, not the secular groups America prefers. No wonder jihadi groups are emerging as more influential and non-Islamists join Salafi groups because they have weapons and money.
An American official told the New York Times “The opposition groups (Islamists) that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it.” Meanwhile, the U.S. is providing the rebels intelligence, communications equipment, humanitarian assistance and other support for shipments of weapons. So much for President Obama’s campaign promise: “And we are making sure that those we help are those who will be friends of ours in the long term.”
Al Qaeda and their Islamist brothers are becoming entrenched in Syria thanks to Arab oil money and America’s complicity. Last year we could have done something to reverse this situation but it may be too late. The longer it takes for Assad to fall, the more difficult it will be to remove the extremists from Syria and the worse it will be for American Mideast interests.