In addition to the jihadists based in Iraq and those who have long worked with the Syrian regime, neighboring Jordan and Lebanon host jihadist forces that also see opportunities in the Syrian unrest. Saudi Arabia also has Sunni militants angered by the killing of Sunnis at the hands of what they call the "infidel" Alawite regime. Just as the Saudis redirected their own jihadists toward fighting in Iraq instead of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh could encourage jihadist non-state actors to fight in Syria. A recent fatwa from a number of top Sunni religious scholars (including some prominent Saudis) forbidding membership in the Syrian security forces would help in this regard.
Regional stakeholders are reluctant to see foreign military intervention, leaving the option of covert support in the form of supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels. Jihadists can be expected to make use of such covert support as they work to insert themselves in Syria. Even if weapons aren't intended for jihadists, the increased flow of weapons and training into Syria provide an additional opportunity for jihadists to build on this support by offering more battle-hardened experience to a still disorganized armed resistance.
But while neither the domestic opponents of the Syrian regime nor the international stakeholders have an interest in seeing Syria collapse into sectarian conflict, jihadists want just that. As in Iraq, we could see bombings against Alawites and other non-Sunni groups, including Iranian and Hezbollah targets. This could be extended to attacks in Lebanon in an attempt to stoke a regional sectarian conflict.
The jihadists could well succeed in sparking a regional sectarian conflict that would involve multiple state and non-state actors and would see Iran and Saudi Arabia locked in an intense proxy war. Western or Israeli involvement in the conflict would please the jihadists even more.
It is therefore in the jihadists' interest to thwart a negotiated settlement in Syria. Though it is still unclear who was responsible for the Dec. 23, 2011, and Jan. 6 suicide attacks targeting Syrian intelligence, they served the jihadists' purpose as they forced the regime to crack down even harder on opponents (both armed and unarmed).
As the rebels and their supporters respond in kind, the jihadists can thus instigate a cycle of violence leading to an intensely polarized environment. The net result of such a process could be a meltdown of the Syrian state and the rise of multiple armed factions, including jihadists.
The collapse of the Syrian state in turn would allow the jihadists a wide arena in which to operate, stretching from Lebanon to Iraq and putting them very close to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories -- the best theater a jihadist could ask for. However, the nature of their capabilities, which will determine the extent of damage they can cause in the Levant and the surrounding area, remains unclear.
It is by no means inevitable that jihadists will flourish in Syria and use it as a launching pad to undermine regional security. The Syrian state is still very much holding, and rebel forces remain divided and do not appear capable of serious advances against the government.
The Risk of Regional Sectarian War
The Syrian upheaval takes place at a time of heightened geopolitical and sectarian tensions in the region, where Iran and its largely Arab Shiite allies are seeking to make inroads into the largely Sunni Arab countries.
For Tehran and its main non-state proxy, the Lebanese Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah, the survival of an Alawite regime in Syria that owes its survival to Iran is critical. Tehran and Hezbollah both have a military presence in Syria, which is assisting Damascus in its efforts to contain the uprising. This is a major cause of concern for international stakeholders, especially Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is the regional player most enthusiastic about seeing regime change in Syria to counter the threat from Iran.
For its part, the Iranian-aligned government in Iraq has a strong incentive to make sure that jihadists in Iraq are not able to relocate to Syria. Baghdad knows all too well that a collapse of the Syrian regime would lead to a revival of Sunni resistance against the Shia, the last thing the Iraqi Shia wish to see.
The United States and Turkey want to ensure that al Qaeda is unable to hijack the Syrian uprising. But neither Washington nor Ankara has the tools to ensure that jihadists don't make their way through Syria's borders with Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The Saudis share this viewpoint, but because they are somewhat insulated they would not mind just enough chaos to bring down the Syrian regime, the closest Arab ally of Iran.
Jordan is already deeply fearful of the fallout from Syria while it deals with growing unrest at home, and has a strong interest in making sure Islamist militants on its soil do not use enter the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, Lebanon could descend into sectarian strife, especially as the Syrian state's ability to maintain control there erodes, the Saudis see an opportunity and the Iranians feel their position becoming vulnerable.
Just how the many moving parts in this dynamic interact will determine the extent to which Syria and its environs become a jihadist playground. A potential collapse of the Syrian state greatly increases the risk of a regional sectarian war that al Qaeda could greatly benefit from. The challenge for those seeking regime change in Syria is thus how to rid the country of Iranian influence while not opening the door to transnational jihadism.