Participation in the Syrian Conflict, albeit token, provides the Tehrik-i-Taliban with important symbolic and material resources.
Crisis creates opportunity. The chronic instability, governance vacuums, and bitter fighting characterizing large swaths of Syria has provided some Islamist militant groups a highly-public platform to reap the spoils of conflict.
The participation of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq (previously known as al-Qaeda in Iraq), and Hezbollah have been extensively documented because of their substantial impact on the conflict’s balance of power and sectarian dimensions. However, the involvement of Pakistan’s Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) in Syria has been under-reported and under-studied. One spurt of articles about the phenomenon appeared in July, followed with a widely circulated piece by Pakistani journalist Zia ur-Rehman in September. I emailed ur-Rehman looking for further information earlier this month, but he confirmed that coverage of the TTP in Pakistan “had disappeared since September.” The contradictory information available about their role in Syria reflects, and has likely contributed to, the lack of focus given to the issue by analysts and media outlets.
In July, TTP commander Abdul Rashid Abbasi, an associate of Hakimullah Meshud, the former head (now deceased) head of the TTP, announced that the TTP sent an expeditionary force of 270 fighters to Syria, accompanied by a team of 12 IT experts tasked with “keep[ing] a watch on the ongoing jihad.” Abbasi claimed that a “request from a top-ranking militant” precipitated this decision, and that TTP fighters in Syria would fight under the command and control structure of the Jahbat al-Nusra, a rebel brigade noted for its’ effectiveness on the battlefield–and association with al-Qaeda. Reports also claimed that the TTP established an “office” in Syria.
While the Pakistani media reported that this was merely the first phase of a planned deployment of 1,500 men, days later a TTP spokesman claimed that while “dozens” of Pakistanis were “waiting in line” to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s army, they were being turned away because the “advice [the TTP was]] getting at the moment is that there [was] already enough manpower [there]”.
The spokesman for the Syrian National Council categorically denied these claims, deeming them as part of a campaign to smear the Syrian opposition by making it look like “a bunch of radical Islamists”. This “thanks but no thanks” response by the Syrian rebels is unsurprising; the utility of a relatively small group of illiterate Urdu-speaking fighters for a conflict located in the urban centers of an Arabic-speaking Levantine nation is dubious at best. Dragging a dozen “IT experts” (glorified social media interns?) away from their day jobs of taping the brutal exploits of the TTP in Pakistan wasn’t going to be a game-changer either.
It makes sense for Hezbollah and the ISIS to commit significant resources to the fight. The former views protecting the Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Alawite minority he represents as a religious duty– and Hezbollah’s Iranian patrons view preserving the Assad regime as a strategic imperative. Simultaneously, the ungoverned spaces created by the conflict provide the ISIS with a Syrian safe haven, giving them a clear incentive participate in the fight.
So why would the TTP waste resources providing a token force in Syria during a period where the organization is grappling with a difficult leadership transition, lethal infighting, and renewed hostilities with the Pakistani government?
One possibility is organizational fragmentation, and a lack of organizational focus. The TTP has never been particularly centralized or unified. The organization was originally comprised by 13 disparate, periodically feuding rebel groups, galvanized by the Pakistani army’s 2002 invasion of Pakistan’s tribal north. It is unlikely that the TTP can exercise control over individuals, or individual commanders, who seek to fight in Syria on their personal initiative. However, this is only part of the puzzle. To fully explain the TTP’s involvement in Syria we must reconceptualize the conflict as an (un)natural resource. While the conflict does not provide the TTP with immediate, concrete benefits, it does provide them with valuable symbolic resources.
This is not the TTP’s first foray outside of Pakistan. The TTP sent Faizal Shahzad, the (failed) Times Square bomber, to America in 2010. This June, they killed ten foreign mountaineers. They have recently pledged to send fighters to Kashmir and to aid in the (laughably unlikely) struggle for Shari’a law in India, and to “avenge” abuses against the Muslim Rohingya in Burma.
This bluster serves three purposes:
First, it raises the TTP’s international profile, which helps attract donations.The TTP casts its involvement in Syria in sectarian terms; in a propaganda video, a TTP member claimed the TTP was on the verge of liberating Syrian Sunnis from a takfiri, Shiite regime. This likely helps attract funds from foreign donors.
Casting the conflict in sectarian terms also yields important domestic benefits. One plank of TTP’s domestic platform is ridding Pakistan of Shi’ite takfiris, and claims by TTP members that Shi’ite Pakistani militias are active in Syria, and killing Syrian Sunnis, allow the TTP to place their participation in the conflict into a narrative of resistance against “brutal Shi’ites.” Worryingly, one TTP leader says that the organization is planning attacks against Shi’ites in Pakistan as retaliation for (supposed) attacks by Pakistani Shi’ite militias against Sunnis in Syria.
Finally, by fighting under the rubric of al-Qaeda, the TTP gains access to al-Qaeda’s operational expertise, and the al-Qaeda network. In these respects, TTP’s participation in Syria could almost be viewed as an unpaid internship of sorts.
However, there have also been setbacks in the TTP’s propaganda efforts in Syria: the World Health Organization recently linked a small Polio outbreak in Syria to Pakistan. Experts say it is unlikely that militants carried the virus to Syria, but the TTP is being blamed nonetheless.
In short, while their presence in Syria may be insignificant in the grand scheme of the conflict, the involvement of Tehrik-i-Taliban provides an illustrative example of the symbolic and material value of unresolved conflicts for militant groups.