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