A Mujahideen Bleed-Through From Iraq? A Look at Syria

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 36

Syrian border guards, such as the one pictured above, will likely face a difficult task in stemming the influx of foreign mujahideen

Al-Qaeda’s organizational goal in Iraq was to acquire contiguous territory from which to spread its influence and operatives, as well as those of its Islamist allies into the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and Turkey. Having been weaned as an insurgent in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden has consistently refused to commit large al-Qaeda resources to jihads lacking country-wide maneuver room or Pakistan-like contiguous safe haven. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, therefore, opened a chance for the above-described expansion by al-Qaeda and its allies that would not have been possible under a Saddam-controlled Iraq.

This is the first of four articles that will assess the initial stages of the penetration of the Levant by al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. This piece will look at Syria, and will be followed by analyses of the bleed-through from Iraq into Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. The quartet of articles will seek to assess the validity of the recent claim by the state-run Syrian newspaper Al-Thawara that because of the war in Iraq “the [Levant] region is throbbing with terrorists.” (quoted in Christian Science Monitor, September 29).

After crushing the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) at the city of Hama in 1982 – killing up to 20,000 people and leveling a quarter of the city – President Hafiz al-Assad adopted the traditional and traditionally unsuccessful tack of Arab tyrants of trying to use government largesse to co-opt Syria’s remaining Islamists and thereby moderate their message. Under al-Assad’s program tens of thousands of new mosques were built; 22 higher-education institutions for Koran-based learning were opened; regional Sharia schools for men and women were started; and Muslim students from more than sixty countries were invited to receive their Islamic schooling in Syria (Daily Star [Beirut], January 12, 2005).

Al-Assad’s son Bashar, however, is discovering that his father’s efforts to co-opt Syrian Islamists have yielded not a tame, state-sponsored Islam but a trend toward militant Islamism in both urban and rural areas of Syria. After the September 27 terrorist attack in Damascus, an Arab journalist suggested:

"The Syrian regime fell – as have others – in[to] the famous illusion that they can toy with the terrorist fundamentalist bear at the beginning of the day and then get rid of it or put it back in the cage at the end of the day! This is an illusion that is repeated and always repeated in the Middle East region. No side wants to learn from the experience of others. Toying with religion or attempting to revolutionize religion or some of its aspects and then trying to benefit from this revolution on the political level without any repercussions or consequences is the biggest illusion of all. It is the first and last mistake because if you commit this mistake once it would be fatal and there would be no second time!" (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 30).

Compounding the failure of cooptation for Damascus is the fact that the senior al-Assad’s Hama operation, although massively murderous, was not comprehensive: the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was not wiped out. Besides members who survived Hama and remained in Syria, a number of senior SMB leaders escaped and were welcomed in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states where they found succor, academic posts, and a safe haven in which to reorganize and plan for revenge. The bin Laden family was among the many wealthy, non-royal Saudi families that had hosted SMB leaders both before and after Hama. Indeed, Osama in his youth met senior SMB leaders on their pilgrimage, and while living in Sudan (1991-1996) several SMB members worked for or were supported by al-Qaeda’s multiple businesses.

It is important to note that an al-Qaeda-led mujahedeen bleed-through from Iraq to Syria had fertile ground in which to take root in 2003. Notwithstanding the ubiquitous and brutal Syrian security services, there was a Damascus-permitted militant Islamist environment to be exploited when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq occurred. Not only had the targets of regime cooptation become more militant, but there were also SMB remnants in the country, as well as the long-time official presence of Hamas, Lebanese Hizballah, and various Palestinian resistance groups.

Into this made-to-order milieu, then, came hundreds and perhaps thousands of young Muslim men from across the Arab and Muslim worlds, eager to enter Iraq and join the fatwa-sanctioned jihad against the U.S.-led coalition. Bashar al-Assad’s regime allowed these men to enter Iraq, trusting that they would make life miserable for U.S. forces, kill enough American troops to force a U.S. withdrawal and end up being killed before they could head for home. Washington singled out Damascus for sole responsibility for this cross-border flow of would-be mujahideen, but al-Assad’s regime was the focal point for the flow because of the easy physical access to Iraq that it afforded. Al-Assad certainly assisted his domestic Islamist firebrands to get to Iraq, but the non-Syrian Muslims who came to Syria en route to Iraq were sent by their own governments – Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Sudan, etc. – in an effort that mirrored Assad’s: send the young Islamists to Iraq to fight and die and thereby create a safety valve that lessens the pressure from domestic Islamist militancy. Obviously, al-Assad indulged the other Arab regimes by permitting the flow through (Al-Ghad, [Jordan], October 11). This is the same method of operation that most Arab and many Muslim regimes used during Moscow’s occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89).

Having now tightened up Syria’s borders with Iraq under pressure from Washington and the French government, Bashar al-Assad is now running a country-size hotel for a variety of ill-tempered Islamist guests (al-Akhbar [Beirut], September 30; NOW Lebanon, September 27). In addition to long-term tenants Hamas, Hizballah, and the secular Palestinian fraternity, Syrian security has to keep tabs on newer and not fully domesticated guests: a growing Syrian Muslim Brotherhood organization; a militant “official” clergy that is stoking greater Islamic fervor at the grassroots level; more than a half-million Iraqi refugees; a multinational assortment of veteran mujahedeen stranded in Syria after leaving Iraq; and would-be fighters who got to Syria but were prevented from entering Iraq. Among the veteran fighters are a contingent of Syrians who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan – some commentators are calling them the “Syrian Afghans” –with military skills they can impart at home and in other countries of the Levant (al-Hayat, September 28).

All told, President Bashar al-Assad – a man not as skilled as his father or as able to control the regime’s security services – is faced with a growing Islamist threat to the stability of his regime. While the regime is not in danger of falling, it is likewise not in the same position as it was in the “seventies and eighties when the [Syrian] authorities were able to liquidate, with the use of force only, what they then called the conspiracy of the ‘Muslim Brothers’” (al-Hayat, September 28). For the foreseeable future, al-Assad and his security forces will have to deal with internal Islamist anger and threats – based on Damascus’s decision to tighten its borders to prevent jihadis going to Iraq, and its indirect talks with Israel – in a manner that is not so severe and brutal as to promote the coalescing of the disparate Sunni militant groups now in Syria.

They also will have to cope with an external threat by better controlling the Syria-Lebanon border to prevent the infiltration of Islamist fighters angry with Damascus and eager to strike back for the blocking of routes to Iraq. President Assad and other Syrian officials have already claimed the border is being infiltrated by violent, Saudi-backed “Salafists,” “Takfiris” and other “extremist forces” from northern Lebanon, and several Arab commentators have noted that this is a legitimate concern for Damascus because northern Lebanon lies close to Syria’s “Sunni belt”, once a hotbed of support for the SMB (Christian Science Monitor, September 29; Quds Press, October 10; AP, September 28). Damascus’s recent decision to sign a security-cooperation deal with the Lebanese regime shows the depth of the Assad regime’s concern with the Islamist threat, but the time may be passing when either Damascus or Beirut can fully control the Sunni militant forces operating on or from their territory.