SYRIA: AL QAEDA WANTS A WIDER REGIONAL WAR.
Hugh Graham, May 15, 2012.
Sectarian violence in Lebanon between groups supporting and opposing Syria’s revolt against the Assad regime couldn’t come at a more ominous moment. Last Thursday’s massive suicide bombings on a government intelligence building in Damascus is almost certainly the work of the terror group Al Qaeda. And one of Al Qaeda’s strategies is to turn the insurrection against the Syrian government into a larger, regional war.
The campaign has been going on for some time. The US government has already said that several such bombings in Syria since December bear Al Qaeda hallmarks. Al Nusra, a local affiliate of Al Qaeda has already claimed responsibility for some of the earlier operations, though there have been contradictory claims about its role in Thursday’s attacks. However, the bombings are too sophisticated to have been done by the Free Syrian Army and they have caused far too much damage and loss of life to Syrian intelligence to allow for theories of government provocation.
The issues at hand are much larger. The scale and timing of Thursday’s bombings recalls the situation in Iraq exploited by Al Qaeda six years ago. There the Sunni terror group successfully fomented civil war by destroying a major shrine to Shia Islam in the town of Samarra in February, 2006. Al Qaeda’s strategy at the time was to spark a Shia-Sunni conflict that would make the country impossible to govern, opening the way for a restoration of Sunni power with an Islamist ideology. That strategy was inseparable from a larger program to assert Sunni dominance against both Shia and Western influence in neighbouring countries.
And Al Qaeda may be using the complexity of the situation in Syria to screen its gradual provocation of a regional war. Whereas in Iraq there were two major ethnic groups, Sunni and Shia, in Syria there is only one major ethnic group, the Sunnis, who make up the majority. The remainder are Christian, Islmaili, Shia and other minorities along with the Alawite Shia, the religion of President Assad’s governing elite. Ordinary Sunnis, it appears, make up most of the opposition. As the wise journalist Nir Rosen has pointed out, these Sunnis, like most Syrians, are devout. But they are not Islamists. The Syrian Sunni Islamists in the opposition are only a minority and they are called Salafists. It’s the Sunni Islamists, mostly outside Syria, who want to exploit the plight of ordinary Sunnis inside Syria.
The fact that Al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni Islamist organization in an adjoining country with long experience in exploiting political strife, might take an opportunistic interest in the Syrian conflict is not surprising. For one thing, they’ll get a welcome from that minority of Syrian Sunni Salafist fighters in the opposition. For another, Al Qaeda’s co-religionist Sunnis are the main victims of the Assad regime. Finally, the entire region is mostly Sunni and Al Qaeda’s agenda is transnational.
Indeed, Al Qaeda doesn’t recognize the national boundaries made by Western diplomats after World War One. That’s why the franchise Al Qaeda in Iraq was renamed Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Its sub-affiliate in Syria is named jabhat al-nusra li-ahl al-sham or The Al Nusra Front to protect the Levant. The Levant is historical Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Not surprisingly, Al Nusra was forged in the furnace of Homs which the Syrian army all but annihilated a month ago. Al Nusra is probably part of Al Qaeda’s larger plan to bring Al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist fighters in from Jordan , Iraq and Lebanon.
The aim is to turn the multi-ethnic protest against Assad into a war which will eventually realign itself as a fight between Sunni Islamists and all who oppose them. The goal, of course, is to bring down Assad and take power in Damascus. But the strategy is wider. Not only is Al Qaeda in the Levant equal to the government of Bashir al Assad in sheer villainy, but its ambitions threaten the entire region.