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Of course, al-Qaeda’s interest in the Syrian uprising is part of its overall effort to piggy back, however belatedly, onto the demonstration movements that have swept the Middle East in 2011. It’s a strategy designed to take advantage of the political instability that followed the fall of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya.
For al-Qaeda, its enmity toward the Syrian government is quite understandable given the heretical view Sunni al-Qaeda holds toward Alawite-ruled Syria and its Shiite partners Hezbollah and Iran. However, it should be noted that Assad’s Syrian regime has had a long, if not complicated, working relationship with al-Qaeda.
During the Iraq war, the United States military repeatedly accused Syria of being an al- Qaeda safe haven. In fact, at the height of the fighting in the Iraq War during 2005 -2006, most terrorists and weapons entering Iraq came through Syria. Moreover, it was reported in 2006 that Syrian Ba’athist groups were subsumed into al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq in an effort to hide Syrian involvement in the conflict.
When the US troop surge began in 2007 and severely decimated al-Qaeda’s Iraq infrastructure, the terror group moved most of its basing into eastern Syria. By 2009 a senior American military official said, “A major concern is that eastern Syria will begin to look like northwestern Pakistan,” where al-Qaeda joined forces with the Taliban and coordinated direct attacks on US and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Not surprisingly, Bashar Assad repeatedly denied any Syrian involvement with any such Islamist terrorist groups, declaring as far back as 2007, “If you stoke [terrorism], it will burn you. So if we have this chaos in Iraq, it will spill over to Syria.”
Yet, despite Assad’s denial, the Syrian support of al-Qaeda’s war in Iraq was strong and unequivocal. However, by 2010 the relationship had begun to cool. That frost may have come with the realization by Assad that the presence of a large number of Sunni terrorists on Syrian soil, such as al-Qaeda, was just as dangerous to a secular Muslim country like Syria as they were to non-Muslim countries.
So, while Syria’s patron Iran continued to fund, arm and train al-Qaeda to attack American and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Assad began a belated crackdown on the terror network. Unfortunately, to his great discomfort, the terror group has now returned with a vengeance.
The irony in all of this for Bashar Assad is that he has steadfastly maintained from the outset of the uprising against his regime in March that the rebellion was being led by a “bunch of terrorists.” For Assad, a man with no documented history of veracity, the recent entrance of al-Qaeda into the Syrian fray is the closest he may ever come to telling the truth.
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