In an eight-minute video clip titled "Onward, Lions of Syria" disseminated on the Internet Feb. 12, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri expressed al Qaeda's support for the popular unrest in Syria. In it, al-Zawahiri urged Muslims in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to aid the Syrian rebels battling Damascus. The statement comes just days after a McClatchy report quoted unnamed American intelligence officials as saying that the Iraqi node of the global jihadist network carried out two attacks against Syrian intelligence facilities in Damascus, while Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi said in a recent interview with AFP that Iraqi jihadists were moving fighters and weapons into neighboring Syria.
Al Qaeda's long-term goal has been to oust Arab governments to facilitate the return of a transnational caliphate. Its tactics have involved mainly terrorism intended to cause U.S. intervention in the region. Al Qaeda has hoped such interventions would in turn incite popular uprisings that would bring down the Arab regimes, opening the way for the jihadists to eventually take power. But the jihadist network's efforts have failed and they have remained a marginal player in the Arab world. By addressing Syria, al Qaeda hopes to tap into the past year of Arab unrest, a movement in which it played little to no part.
The region's regimes have been on the defensive due to the rise of political Islamism, growing public disillusionment and the sectarian Sunni-Shiite split, though foreign military intervention has been required to actually topple them, as we saw in Libya. Growing uncertainty in the region and the gradual weakening of these regimes gives jihadists an opportunity to reassert their relevance. Al-Zawahiri's statement, however, represents a continuation of the central leadership's inability to do more than issue taped statements from its Pakistani hideouts, much less engage in strategic planning.
Jihadists and the Middle East Unrest
Al Qaeda's extreme transnational agenda always has had limited appeal to the Arab masses. Popular unrest in Arab countries and the empowerment of political Islamists via elections in Egypt and Tunisia have underscored the jihadists' irrelevance to societies in the Islamic world. The jihadists have failed to oust a sitting government anywhere in the Islamic world, even in Afghanistan, where the Taliban's rise to power in the mid-1990s occurred in a power vacuum. Recognizing their limitations, jihadists have focused on conducting attacks intended to create crises within target countries and in those countries' external relations -- as is the case in Pakistan and Yemen. The jihadist hope has been to create enough disorder that they would eventually be able to seize power.
This approach has proved difficult because Arab governments (despite their weaknesses) have been resilient and societal fragmentation has not worked to the advantage of jihadists. A second option has been to try to take advantage of power vacuums that were created by other forces. Iraq presented one such opportunity when U.S. forces ousted the Baathist regime in 2003, allowing for the emergence of al Qaeda's then-most active node. In Iraq, the country's Shiite majority posed a daunting obstacle to the jihadists even before the jihadists alienated their Iraqi Sunni allies to the point that they began siding with the Americans, which led to a degradation of the jihadist network in Iraq. By contrast, post-Gadhafi Libya, with its proliferation of militias -- some of which have both Islamist and jihadist tendencies -- could become a more welcoming place for jihadists. But even if Libya were to descend into Islamist militancy, geography would most likely prevent it from spreading too far beyond Libya's borders.
However, given Syria's strategic location at the crossroads of so many key geopolitical fault lines, the meltdown of the Syrian state could easily result in a regional conflict. Most stakeholders oppose foreign military intervention in Syria for this very reason. Many states are eyeing the strategic goal of weakening Iran geopolitically through the ouster of the Alawite regime in Syria, but even that prospect may not be enough to offset the potential costs.
Jihadists' Prospects in Syria
With or without foreign intervention, jihadists in the region have ample room for maneuver in Syria. The most significant regional jihadist presence lies across the Syrian border in Iraq. These forces benefited from Damascus' decision to back Sunni insurgents from 2003 to 2007. The consolidation of Shiite power in Iraq greatly weakened these forces. Now that Syria is unraveling and armed resistance to the regime is shaping up, the jihadist flow is reversing direction, with jihadists now entering Syria from Iraq.
Al Qaeda in Iraq sought to channel Sunni disenfranchisement at the hands of the Shia, but now the group is looking to help Syrian Sunnis empower themselves at the expense of the Iranian-backed Alawites. Jihadist forces within striking distance of Syria are likely trying to exploit the unpopularity of the Alawite regime among Sunnis as a way to gain a foothold in Syria.
The level of factionalization among the Syrian rebels works to the advantage of jihadists. Just as Iraq's Sunni tribal forces, Islamists and Baathists cooperated with the jihadists against U.S troops and the country's new Shia-dominated security forces, many elements within Syria's Sunni population would be willing to align with jihadists given the constraints they face in battling the well-armed Alawite-dominated Syrian military.
Complicating matters, the Syrian intelligence apparatus has long cultivated ties with jihadists to insulate Damascus from jihadist attacks and to use jihadists in proxy wars with Syria's neighbors. As the state gets more and more embroiled in the internal conflict and the intelligence apparatus gets bogged down with rising distractions at home, these jihadist elements who have been on the payroll of Syrian intelligence can turn against their former handlers along the lines of what has happened in Pakistan and Yemen.