Jihadis Turn their Eyes to Syria as a Post-Iraq Theater of Operations

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 26

Abu Mus'ab al-Suri

In what might be described as Syria from a jihadist perspective, an article entitled “Al-Qaeda al-Sulbah” (the Solid Base) was posted to the jihadi website al-Faloja.com on July 21 by active al-Faloja contributor Abu Fadil al-Madi. The article urges Salafi-Jihadis to reconsider the importance of the political and strategic changes in Syria. The title of al-Madi’s posting is borrowed from a 1988 article by Palestinian jihad ideologue Abdullah Azzam. [1]

Al-Madi claims there was a kind of agreement between the jihadis and the Syrian regime, an “unannounced agreement to stop mutual hostilities,” but the situation has changed since the latter part of 2005. It was then that the regime launched a campaign against “all the components of the Sunnis in Syria; the traditional religious groups (al-Khaznawi Naqshbandiya [a Sufi order] and al-Qubeisyat for example), the Shari’ia institutions (al-Fatah Institute and Abu Nur Institute, in particular), and even against those who were considered to be close allies of the regime, working with all their strength as a trumpet [of the regime] (Muhammad Habash, as an example).[2] As well, there is the fierce security campaign against the Salafi-Jihadi movement, which has escalated since [Fall 2005].”

Al-Madi’s post asserts that there is an alliance between the Syrian Alawite regime and Ja’afri-dominated Iran. [3] This alliance, based on the religious links of these two branches of Shi’ism (though not all Shiites recognize the Alawis as Shi’a), created the division in the Middle East between “the Shi’a crescent” and the “moderate axis.” Despite these ties, the article claims the Syrian regime is pragmatic in terms of its relations with the United States, especially when it comes to coordination against jihadis. Washington’s extradition to Syria of jihadi ideologue Abu Mus’ab al-Suri is an indication of the degree of this cooperation, claims the writer.
Having concluded that the Syrian regime is working hard against Sunnis in general, the writer asks, “What is the Salafi-Jihadi movement’s strategic vision for Syria?… Will it remain a potential passage for supplies [to Iraq] or has the time come – or close to it – for a radical strategic change?”

Al-Madi’s post states that the jihadi movement has concentrated its efforts on the Iraqi front since 2003 and “developed its political-strategic project by proclaiming the Islamic State of Iraq.” However, the geographically sensitive location of Iraq and the international and regional strategic conflict over resources such as oil have pushed both the states of the moderate axis and the Shi’a crescent to try to contain the jihadi movement, penetrate its apparatus and “adapt” it by all means, “each in its own way.” Accordingly, the Awakening councils (al-Sahawat) of Iraq were created by exploiting tribal relations with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The councils also had connections to Syria, benefitting from the latter’s close ties with some Iraqi Ba’athist elements. Al-Madi believes that such policies wasted the efforts of the jihadis since 2007 in a battle of attrition instead of a final battle with “the Crusaders and their supporters in Iraq.”

Al-Madi continued by saying that “the fall of the Syrian regime or its collapse into chaos will have a direct impact on the neighboring Sunnis in Iraq and Lebanon, and they will liberate themselves from the constraints on their movement and will find in Syria, a free, important space for movement and supply.” In such a scenario the writer thinks that the “fall of Syria” will cut off land transport of Iranian land supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This will equalize the strength of the Lebanese Sunnis with Lebanon’s Shi’a community. According to the author, Syria will serve as a backyard to support the fight against Americans in Iraq. “More importantly, the jihadi project will be in direct contact with Israel in an area which is ideal for guerrilla warfare, namely the occupied Golan Heights, without having to fight a costly battle to overcome the Shiite strongholds in southern Lebanon”.

The writer concludes that “material interests” in Syria do not exist as they do in Iraq, meaning that international and regional actors will not become involved in armed conflict in Syria as they did in Iraq because any military invasion would be too costly. He also declared that “the planning for change relies on a solid popular base in Syria which never existed in Iraq. The Sunnis, whose rights are prejudiced, are the majority in Syria, while the dominant and well-armed Rafidah (rejectionist) Shi’a do not form more than a quarter of the Syrian population.”

Despite the “unannounced agreement” between jihadis and the Syrian regime, the enmity between the parties goes back to the early 1980s, when clashes took place between Syrian authorities and the Muslim Brotherhood.  The hostility exists not because there is a close relation between the jihadis and the Muslim Brotherhood, but because that era has played a significant role in shaping the way Islamists in the Arab world regard the Syrian regime. The negative perception of the Syrian Alawite regime can be seen in much of the Arab world’s Islamist literature, but is particularly visible in the works of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri.

Al-Madi’s article shows that the jihadis in the Levant region are concerned about the influence of Iran, based on their religious differences. The increasing numbers of Syrian fighters that have taken part in jihad activities in Iraq or in Lebanon since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 make the ideas presented in the article crucial. [4] The Salafi-Jihadi movement is in decline in Iraq, but it follows that those jihadis returning to their own countries or new locations could become a potential security problem. Syria is one of the countries that jihadis could aim to turn into a new front after benefitting from its use as a passage to Iraq for the last six years.


1. Abdullah Azzam, al-Qai’ida al-Salbba (the Solid Base), Jihad Magazine, Issue 41, April 1988.
2. Al-Madi refers here to the Syrian Kurdish branch of the Naqshbandiyya Sufi order led by Ahmad al-Khaznawi. Al-Qubeisyat is a religiously conservative women’s organization. Muhammad Habash is director of the moderate Islamic Studies Center in Damascus. For the Abu Nur Institute, see Terrorism Monitor, June 4.
3. Al-Madi refers to the Imami Shi’a school of jurisprudence, named for its founder, Ja’afar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shi’a imam. The Alawis are a small but powerful minority in Syria, where most of the population is Sunni Muslim. There is also a small Christian community.
Murad Batal al-Shishani, Ma Ba’ad al-Islam al-Siyasi fi Soria: Abu Mus’ab al-Suri wal-jeel al-Thaleth mn al-Salafeen al-Jihadeen (Beyond Political Islam in Syria: Abu Mus’ab al-Suri and the Third Generation of the Salafi-Jihadists), in Radwan Ziadeh (ed), al-Ikhwan al-Muslmeen fi Soria (Muslim Brotherhood in Syria), al-Misbar Studies and Research Center, Dubai, August 2009.