Al-Qaeda insurgents have now crossed into Syria in an effort to bring down the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. The armed presence of the terror group raises new concerns over what factions within the Syrian anti-government coalition will emerge triumphant if and when Assad falls.
Iraqi military officials have claimed hundreds of armed al-Qaeda insurgents from northern Iraq have recently crossed into Syria to join the fight against the security forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. According to Iraqi officials, as the terrorists attempted to gain entrance into Syria, “dozens” of al-Qaeda fighters were arrested and three buses and a truck filled with heavy and light weapons were seized.
The terrorists, reportedly based in Iraq’s northern province of Nineveh and its western province of Anbar, have also used Jordan and Turkey as access points into Syria. One Iraqi official said that Nineveh and Anbar have become “land bridges for the transportation of weapons and ammunition from the huge arsenal built up over its years of existence in Iraq.” Funding for the al-Qaeda incursion into Syria is reportedly coming from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The troubling news comes as Bashar Assad continues his vicious crackdown on Syria’s anti-government protesters, an assault which has to date killed an estimated 3,000 people and wounded over 10,000. However, the Syrian regime now finds itself faced with a growing armed resistance in the guise of the Free Syria Army, a newly organized militia comprised of defectors from Syria’s armed forces.
Now, the entrance of al-Qaeda onto the scene threatens to push Syria toward outright civil war. Moreover, the presence of al-Qaeda inter-mixed with Syrian rebels bring to mind the scenario recently played out in Libya in which the armed opposition, trained and equipped by NATO, consisted of a motley and nefarious hodgepodge of Islamists, former regime supporters and al-Qaeda insurgents.
In fact, other similarities to the Libyan campaign come to mind with the increasing role that NATO is playing behind the scenes of the conflict. According to Israeli intelligence sources, NATO, in conjunction with Turkey’s Military High Command, is already drawing up plans to arm rebels with “large quantities of anti-tank and anti-air rockets, mortars and heavy machine guns.”
Moreover, these same sources say Syrian rebels, along with paramilitary brigades affiliated to al-Qaeda, are already being trained by Turkish military officers at “makeshift installations in Turkish bases near the Syrian border.”
That Syrian President Bashar Assad should now find himself and his regime at odds with al-Qaeda should surprise little, given the terror group’s announcement in July of its solidarity with Syria’s anti-regime protesters.
Their ringing endorsement came in a video message delivered by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in which he claimed that Assad had betrayed the Arab world as “America's partner in the war on Islam.” To that end, al-Zawahri urged the “free people of Syria and its mujahideen” to overthrow Assad, the “leader of criminal gangs.”
Nonetheless, al-Zawahri’s message of jihadist solidarity found little open support from Syrian protest leaders, most of whom publicly professed a preference for peaceful protests as well as a fear that al-Qaeda’s entrance into the fight would escalate into an even bloodier sectarian conflict.
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.