After the deadly bombing in the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahiya in southern Beirut, Lebanon that killed close to 30 people and injured up to 400, jihadi media outlets were inundated with posts by members of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) praising the attack. In the rebel-held provincial capital of al-Raqqa in northern Syria, sweets were handed out in celebration of the bombing viewed as retaliation for Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. The attack is being touted as a further progression in ISIS’s goal of establishing an Islamic State from “Diyala to Beirut.” While the ISIS has not released an official communiqué claiming responsibility for the bombing, the group that did take credit, the “Brigades of Aisha,” most likely has ties to Syrian rebel factions.
Just one day prior to the Dahiya bombing, a series of coordinated car-bombings rocked parts of Baghdad. This comes less than a month after the brazen Abu Ghraib prison break in which approximately 500 militants were said to have escaped. This drastic escalation in violence points not merely to the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but also to an expanding “area of responsibility.”
With an estimated 17,000 foreign fighters having entered Syria, the ground has been laid for the jihadi globalization of the conflict to a degree far surpassing that of either Iraq or Afghanistan. In an attempt to prevent the type of alienation between the native population and jihadists that led to the creation of the Iraqi Awakening movement, the al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria has published handbooks on how to treat the Syrian people with greater respect and kindness. One of the first videos to be released by ISIS from al-Furqan Media, the same outlet that produced the Islamic State of Iraq’s videos prior to its expansion, presents a group of ISIS militants in Aleppo speaking under a da’wah tent. Their speeches are primarily concerned with trying to explain to the crowd of onlookers that the ISIS is innocent of committing takfeer, declaring the general Muslim population to be nonbelievers.
The current leader of al-Qaeda Central (AQC), Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been primarily an advocate for fighting the “near enemy,” governments in the Arab and Islamic world, since his early days as head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad prior to their merger with Usama Bin Laden’s group. The joining of the two AQ affiliates that focus almost solely on jihad against local regimes, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) and Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab, was primarily orchestrated through Zawahiri and not Bin Laden. While the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, historically much closer to Bin Laden, is tasked with focusing their attacks on the “far enemy,” the United States, the most recent results of which were the closures of nearly two-dozen US embassies, the ISIS has the primary goal of establishing a proto-Caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
What is taking place is not merely a shift of focus from the United States and its Western allies to regional opponents, but more importantly, there is a shift in power from the periphery (Afghanistan and Pakistan) to the center (Syria and Yemen). The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whom the US State Department recently confirmed as having relocated to Syria, has openly defied Zawahiri’s order to maintain the Syrian branch’s autonomy from the Iraqi group, asserting his authority as the “commander of the believers” in the region. One of the earliest criticisms leveled against the Arab Mujahidin during the Afghan-Soviet War was that they had chosen to send thousands of Arab Muslims to a marginal part of the Islamic world instead of putting all their energies towards the liberation of Palestine. Their response was that any attempt to engage in a conflict with Israel on the part of Islamists would have been met with destruction, not from the state of Israel, but from the Arab regimes surrounding it. With incursions into Lebanon and safe havens being established in areas with either limited or no state control in Syria and Egypt in the Sinai, al-Qaeda affiliates can now claim to have come that much closer to direct involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Like Afghanistan in the 80’s, the Syrian conflict has been able to attract the most militant elements from the other Arab countries and, also like Afghanistan, many of these governments have either turned a blind eye to them or directly facilitated their entry into Syria. The reasoning is also the same: sending radicals abroad decreases their threat at home. Engulfing jihadist militants in a sectarian conflict can distract them away from directing their attacks against the Sunni Arab regimes that are allied with the US, as in Iraq. Any surviving militants can be immediately imprisoned upon their return, in spite of the complicity of the Arab states in their entering the Syrian conflict in the first place, just as they arrested the thousands of militants who returned from the Afghan-Soviet war in the early 90’s. Of course, the US arming of rebel forces in Syria while being fully aware that, in spite of ideological differences and the occasional armed clash, a great number of the large scale anti-Assad operations are conducted by the moderate FSA factions in cooperation with Salafi-jihadist groups, should be the most obvious parallel between what is happening in Syria now and what happened in Afghanistan decades ago.
On July 18th, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing entitled “Global al-Qaeda: Affiliates, Objectives, and Future Challenges,” the result of which all but solidified support for a greatly increased and much more direct US military involvement in the overthrow of the Assad regime. Whether it is to be a purely clandestine intervention or otherwise, one of three scenarios is possible. The first possibility is that, with US military support, the Assad regime can rather easily be toppled and the moderate elements within the rebel forces can be propped up and defended against the more radical elements. Another, less optimistic scenario would be one in which jihadist groups, long after US forces have departed, remain present and actively engaged in combat with whatever Western-friendly regime replaces that of Assad, mirroring the case of modern-day Iraq. The other possibility is that Syria and surrounding areas could transform into an entirely unstable, ungovernable conflict zone, the safest of safe havens for those planning to launch attacks against the US and its allies, and the major connecting point and training center for militants from the Sinai, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and elsewhere. The quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan would pale in comparison.
The views expressed in this article are those of the analyst and may not reflect the institutional position of SISMEC.