Syria: A Haven for Terrorists?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 16

Are Syrian officials aiding the underground mujahideen railroad to Iraq? The many strong opinions on the matter reflect the different views of Syria’s future, its relations with neighbors, Iraq and Lebanon, and to jihadist and moderate Islamism. Certainly, we need to look at the totality of Syrian affairs and not simply at isolated cases of questionable behavior. At present it appears the Syrians are more concerned about their decreasing control over a variety of actors in Lebanon than about the progress of mujahideen from Syria eastward. More broadly the Syrians are anxious to assert their cooperation in the global war on terrorism, despite Washington’s freezing of certain ministerial and agent’s assets, as if protests of innocence will sharpen Washington’s aggressive image or prove that the Americans generate a lot of kalam fadi, or empty talk in Arabic.

An Islamist threat is not unknown in Syria. Thousands of Islamists and innocent bystanders were massacred to stem an Islamist challenge to the state in 1982. The Muslim Brotherhood (or the Ikhwan) disclaimed a role in violent challenges to the state but in fact a radical militant branch of the Brothers, al-Tali`a al-Muqatila (The Fighting Vanguard) founded by Marwan Hadeed, engineered a crisis between the Syrian government and the Islamists. This group acted precipitously in its massacres of Ba’ath party members and their families, thus bringing down the regime’s fierce vengeance on all active Sunni Islamists. At that time, the Ikhwan who survived the onslaught fled the country or went underground, but Islamism rose again like a phoenix amongst Sunni Syrians despite their socialization and education in the Ba’ath values of freedom, socialism and Arab nationalism. The popularity of hijab and prayer groups was already widely apparent in the early 1990s. Islamism’s re-emergence has been credited to resentment of the Alawi elite and the Ba’ath Party’s secularism, the government’s own sponsorship of Islamic education, and some 585 religious institutions, as well as religious influence from the Persian Gulf region, and Syrian interest in Islamist alternatives elsewhere in the Arab world. [1]

Back in 2002, the Muslim Brotherhood convened a conference in London aiming at unification of the Syrian opposition. [2] But President Bashar al-Assad later publicly suggested that Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood had already returned to their homeland like prodigal sons, or might do so. [3] Such statements fall in line with certain characterizations of Bashar as a would-be reformer who lacks the power to dictate to those shadowy figures who allegedly control the country, and up until recently, much of Lebanon as well. Many of the 600 prisoners released in 2000 were Ikhwan members, another 113 were released in November of 2001, 112 in December of 2004, and some of the 55 prisoners set free on February 12, 2005 were also from the Party. Moderate cleric Mohammad Habash called for an end to Law No. 29 which makes membership in the Muslim Brotherhood a capital crime. [4] The Syrian government’s extension of the olive branch meant that it hoped to absorb its opposition, and stem the growth of radicalism from within the country.

However, it is not entirely clear whether the Syrian government is seriously interested in promoting democratization, let alone involving the Islamists in the political process. The late Lebanese writer, Samir Kassir, assassinated on June 2 by a car bomb, believed that only through Syria’s democratization would Lebanon achieve viable independence, and in addition to his organization of huge anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, he was said to be encouraging a more viable Syrian opposition that included the Ikhwan. [5] The Ba’ath Party Congress convened just after his murder and the killing of a Syrian Kurdish leader. That Congress was disappointing as it only slightly amended emergency laws, and while allowing the legalization of some political parties, made it clear that the Ba’ath will remain the pre-eminent force.

What relationship does the re-emergence of the Ikhwan have with Syria’s alleged support or lack of oversight over fighters moving into Iraq to join the insurgency? First, a country and President that cannot control its own security operatives or political opponents is unlikely to be capable of political transformation. Secondly, wherever citizens support Islamism as a popular discourse and see the insurgency in Iraq to be a legitimate form of resistance, it may be more difficult to protect a porous border or contain the future role of Islamism. Further, the Syrian government may have shot itself in the foot by loudly announcing its non-aggression pact with Iran, or when President Bashar al-Asad claimed that “The armed operations against the American occupying forces in Iraq [are] a legitimate resistance because it represents the majority of the Iraqi people.” [6] Opponents of the Syrian government argue that Syria has long demonstrated a tolerance of terrorist organizations and aims at regional influence beyond its own natural capabilities. Therefore, the logic is that since Syria has supported groups like Hizbullah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and interfered in Lebanon’s sovereign politics, it is allowing jihadi activity from its territory into Iraq. This argument does not address support for the Iraqi insurgency from within Iraq, or from other porous avenues like the Saudi and Jordanian borders.

At first, U.S. analysts emphasized alleged Syrian complicity in the Iraqi insurgency through collusion with Iraqi Ba’athists who had fled there. The U.S. Treasury Department’s July 21 identification of four nephews of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein operating from Syria and funding the insurgency substantiates a part of this claim without explaining the Islamist component of the insurgency. On the other hand, Syria’s relationship to the situation in Iraq is complicated. Saddam Hussein was not beloved in Damascus, and Syria now hosts a huge number of refugees, many of whom are so poor that prostitution is burgeoning along with malnutrition. [7]

And then there is the Islamist strand of the insurgency in Iraq and the recent posting on Minbar Suriyya al-Islami ( which suggested that jihadists were trying to discourage the flow of inexperienced fighters into Syria. It is fairly certain that various routes for fighters supplying the Iraqi insurgency were established, and a recent jihadi website suggests a route through Aleppo, a Sunni urban center, that might be less avidly patrolled than Damascus. The material implies that jihadis will no doubt travel to Syria despite the website’s discouragement, but they should forget about entering Syria on an individual basis, exercise caution and subtlety in locating recruiters, and avoid the Internet. As for the question of whether Aleppo is buzzing with mujahideen, it was a center of Islamist activity years ago, though, perhaps no more so than the other large cities, Hama, Homs, and Damascus included.

Aleppine followers of Abu Qaqaa, a radical preacher, gathered in Aleppo and smugglers helped bring fighters over the Iraqi border at least until January of 2005, when a crackdown began. According to one former recruiter, the crackdown did not prevent his cell from sending a Saudi insurgent with plenty of cash over the border. Now, the question is whether officials possess sufficient knowledge of continuing support for the insurgency, or control over networking in Syria to bear responsibility. Or are their opponents still angry over other issues like the continuing operations of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Syria’s test launching of Scud missiles, a continuing intelligence presence in Lebanon and a purported “hit list” in that country? It is certainly possible to make a case, as critics of Syria do, that the sponsorship of international terrorism has long been a useful means for Syrians to magnify their country’s regional impact. While Syrian officials assert that their border with Iraq has been closed, other reports suggest crossings that lead down the Euphrates valley, or northwards toward Tal Afar and Mosul, remain open to the mujahideen. [8] However, given that the total strength of the Iraqi resistance stands at anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000, even if an estimated 150 fighters cross into Iraq each month, Syrians or those crossing in from Syria, are a fairly insignificant proportion of it.

Syria meanwhile argues that it has captured terrorists and recently two additional militants were detained after a skirmish on Mt. Qassioun which overlooks the city of Damascus. Events more pressing than any jihadi presence amounted to a Syrian-Lebanese border crisis. A gun battle outside the village of Qaa, arrests of alleged smugglers, detention of fishermen, and a blockade on the truck crossing at the Abboudiah-Dabbousiah northern crossing and at Masnaa have seriously disrupted truck transport. [9] The flow of arms, money, intelligence and goods from Lebanon into Syria has been of higher concern to Damascus, than U.S.- or Iraq-generated charges that Syria is not sufficiently discouraging Iraq-bound mujahideen. Foreign Minister, Faruq al-Shara commented that Syria would like “evidence” of the alleged cross-border activity and infiltration. Syrians continued to claim that there “was no” credible Iraqi evidence. Although al-Shara also announced that Syria wants to co-operate with Iraq and “open a new page,” his country is certainly more comfortable with a fractured and destabilized Iraq than with the loss of its control over events and actors in Lebanon.

The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


1. Ibrahim Hamidi, “Can Syria Keep Its Islamist Genie in the Bottle?” Daily Star, 12 January, 2005.

2. Nasser Salem, “Muslim Brotherhood Reasserting its Leadership of Syria’s Fractured Opposition,”

3. Al-Jazeera, April 2004.

4. Sami Moubayed, “No Room for Political Islam in Syria,” Asian Times, May 10, 2005.

5. Michael Young, “Can Lebanon Parry Syria’s Threats?” The Daily Star, July 7, 2005

6. Asad on Open Dialogue, as reported in Al-Jazeera, 28 April, 2004.

7. Joshua Phillips, “Unveiling Iraq’s Teenage Prostitutes,” June 24, 2005

8. Times Online June 25, 2005.

9. July 17, 2005.