WRITE for ATol ADVERTISE MEDIA KIT GET ATol BY EMAIL ABOUT ATol CONTACT US
Asia Time Online - Daily News
             
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese



    Middle East
     Dec 20, 2008
MUJAHIDEEN BLEED-THROUGH, Part 1
Syria: Terror's made-to-order milieu

By Michael Scheuer

Al-Qaeda's organizational goal in Iraq was to acquire contiguous territory from which to spread its influence and operatives, as well as those of its Islamist allies, into the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and Turkey.

Having been weaned as an insurgent in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden has consistently refused to commit large al-Qaeda resources to jihads lacking country-wide maneuver room or Pakistan-like contiguous safe haven. The US-led invasion of Iraq, therefore, opened a chance for the above-described expansion by

 

al-Qaeda and its allies that would not have been possible under a Saddam Hussein-controlled Iraq.

This is the first of four articles that will assess the initial stages of the penetration of the Levant - an ancient term for a region stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to Mesopotamia - by al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. This piece will look at Syria, and will be followed by analyses of the bleed-through from Iraq into Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. The quartet of articles will seek to assess the validity of the recent claim by the state-run Syrian newspaper al-Thawara that because of the war in Iraq "the [Levant] region is throbbing with terrorists".

After crushing the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) at the city of Hama in 1982 - killing up to 20,000 people and leveling a quarter of the city - president Hafiz al-Assad adopted the traditional and traditionally unsuccessful tack of Arab tyrants of trying to use government largesse to co-opt Syria's remaining Islamists and thereby moderate their message. Under Assad's program tens of thousands of new mosques were built; 22 higher-education institutions for Koran-based learning were opened; regional sharia schools for men and women were started; and Muslim students from more than sixty countries were invited to receive their Islamic schooling in Syria.

Assad's son Bashar, however, is discovering that his father's efforts to co-opt Syrian Islamists have yielded not a tame, state-sponsored Islam but a trend toward militant Islamism in both urban and rural areas of Syria. After the September 27 terrorist attack in Damascus, an Arab journalist suggested:
The Syrian regime fell - as have others - in[to] the famous illusion that they can toy with the terrorist fundamentalist bear at the beginning of the day and then get rid of it or put it back in the cage at the end of the day! This is an illusion that is repeated and always repeated in the Middle East region. No side wants to learn from the experience of others. Toying with religion or attempting to revolutionize religion or some of its aspects and then trying to benefit from this revolution on the political level without any repercussions or consequences is the biggest illusion of all. It is the first and last mistake because if you commit this mistake once it would be fatal and there would be no second time!
Compounding the failure of co-optation for Damascus is the fact that the senior al-Assad's Hama operation, although massively murderous, was not comprehensive: the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was not wiped out. Besides members who survived Hama and remained in Syria, a number of senior SMB leaders escaped and were welcomed in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states where they found succor, academic posts, and a safe haven in which to reorganize and plan for revenge.

The bin Laden family was among the many wealthy, non-royal Saudi families that had hosted SMB leaders both before and after Hama. Indeed, Osama in his youth met senior SMB leaders on their pilgrimage, and while living in Sudan (1991-1996) several SMB members worked for or were supported by al-Qaeda's multiple businesses.

It is important to note that an al-Qaeda-led mujahideen bleed-through from Iraq to Syria had fertile ground in which to take root in 2003. Notwithstanding the ubiquitous and brutal Syrian security services, there was a Damascus-permitted militant Islamist environment to be exploited when the US-led invasion of Iraq occurred. Not only had the targets of regime co-optation become more militant, but there were also SMB remnants in the country, as well as the long-time official presence of Hamas, Lebanese Hezbollah, and various Palestinian resistance groups.

Into this made-to-order milieu, then, came hundreds and perhaps thousands of young Muslim men from across the Arab and Muslim worlds, eager to enter Iraq and join the fatwa-sanctioned jihad against the US-led coalition. Bashar al-Assad's regime allowed these men to enter Iraq, trusting that they would make life miserable for US forces, kill enough American troops to force a US withdrawal and end up being killed before they could head for home. Washington singled out Damascus for sole responsibility for this cross-border flow of would-be mujahideen, but al-Assad's regime was the focal point for the flow because of the easy physical access to Iraq that it afforded.

Al-Assad certainly assisted his domestic Islamist firebrands to get to Iraq, but the non-Syrian Muslims who came to Syria en route to Iraq were sent by their own governments - Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Sudan, etc - in an effort that mirrored Assad's: send the young Islamists to Iraq to fight and die and thereby create a safety valve that lessens the pressure from domestic Islamist militancy. Obviously, al-Assad indulged the other Arab regimes by permitting the flow through. This is the same method of operation that most Arab and many Muslim regimes used during Moscow's occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89).

Having now tightened up Syria's borders with Iraq under pressure from Washington and the French government, Bashar al-Assad is now running a country-size hotel for a variety of ill-tempered Islamist guests. In addition to long-term tenants Hamas, Hezbollah, and the secular Palestinian fraternity, Syrian security has to keep tabs on newer and not fully domesticated guests: a growing Syrian Muslim Brotherhood organization; a militant "official" clergy that is stoking greater Islamic fervor at the grassroots level; more than a half-million Iraqi refugees; a multinational assortment of veteran mujahideen stranded in Syria after leaving Iraq; and would-be fighters who got to Syria but were prevented from entering Iraq.

Among the veteran fighters are a contingent of Syrians who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan - some commentators are calling them the "Syrian Afghans" - with military skills they can impart at home and in other countries of the Levant.

All told, Assad - a man not as skilled as his father or as able to control the regime's security services - is faced with a growing Islamist threat to the stability of his regime. While the regime is not in danger of falling, it is likewise not in the same position as it was in the "seventies and eighties when the [Syrian] authorities were able to liquidate, with the use of force only, what they then called the conspiracy of the 'Muslim Brothers'."

For the foreseeable future, al-Assad and his security forces will have to deal with internal Islamist anger and threats - based on Damascus' decision to tighten its borders to prevent jihadis going to Iraq, and its indirect talks with Israel - in a manner that is not so severe and brutal as to promote the coalescing of the disparate Sunni militant groups now in Syria.

They also will have to cope with an external threat by better controlling the Syria-Lebanon border to prevent the infiltration of Islamist fighters angry with Damascus and eager to strike back for the blocking of routes to Iraq. Assad and other Syrian officials have already claimed the border is being infiltrated by violent, Saudi-backed "Salafists", "Takfiris" and other "extremist forces" from northern Lebanon, and several Arab commentators have noted that this is a legitimate concern for Damascus because northern Lebanon lies close to Syria's "Sunni belt", once a hotbed of support for the SMB.

Damascus' recent decision to sign a security-cooperation deal with the Lebanese regime shows the depth of the Assad regime's concern with the Islamist threat, but the time may be passing when either Damascus or Beirut can fully control the Sunni militant forces operating on or from their territory.

NEXT: Lebanon

Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning in 2004. He served as the chief of the Bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999. He is the once anonymous author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror; his most recent book is Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq. Dr Scheuer is a Senior Fellow with The Jamestown Foundation.

(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)

(Copyright 2008 The Jamestown Foundation.)


The failed Muslim states to come
(Dec 16,'08)

History haunts Saudi strategy with Syria (Dec 10,'08)

Syria back on the terror map
(Oct 1,'08)


1. No rest for the unemployed

2. The devil and Bernard Madoff

3. The failed Muslim states to come

4. Pirates draw China to the high seas

5. The emperor gets the boot

6. Obama and the new Latin America

7. Pakistan groups banned but not bowed

8. Obama to redefine Asia ties? Not so fast

9. Orwell revisited: Iran and dirty bombs

10. Fools' gold resurfaces in Indonesia

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Dec 18, 2008)

 
 



All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110