â™¦ The battle over Syria has descended into sectarian strife led by extreme Salafists and other Islamic splinter organizations in a carefully orchestrated uprising coordinated and fueled by al-Qaeda operatives.
â™¦ The Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, could well be in a process of disintegration, as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) did not recognize its authority. Yet the FSA is no longer the sole force in the fight against Assad.
â™¦ As in Egypt, in Syria the Muslim Brothers have succeeded in appropriating (some would call it hijacking) the revolt and ultimately becoming its backbone. Moreover, Muslim fighters from around the globe are coming to join the ranks in the battle against Assad.
â™¦ The gradual transformation of the Syrian opposition into a movement led by extremist Muslims allied with al-Qaeda does not serve the opposition well. The majority of Syrians do not identify with those radicals. The more the opposition wears the mask of al-Qaeda, the more there is cohesion in the ranks around Assad.
â™¦ Recent street fighting in Tripoli, Lebanon, between Alawites and Sunnis is a reflection of the wider war between two alliances, with Syria, Iran, and Hizbullah opposed by an alliance led by Saudi Arabia and its allies, including its Salafist and Muslim fundamentalist troops.
â™¦ In addition, the battle over the future of Syria is symptomatic of the revival of the Cold War between the West – with the U.S., UK, France, and Turkey backing the anti-Assad forces – and Russia, steadfast behind the Alawite regime.
The Free Syrian Army – Not the Only Force in the Field
Since the beginning of the Syrian revolt against the Assad regime, no significant opposition body has emerged as a potential alternative to the Alawite regime. It is now clear that the battle over Syria has descended into sectarian strife led by extreme Salafists and other Islamic splinter organizations in a carefully orchestrated uprising coordinated and fueled by al-Qaeda operatives.
In fact, the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group which was led until May 24, 2012, by leader-in-exile Burhan Ghalioun, could well be in a process of disintegration.1 Ghalioun resigned from his self-nominated position after having realized that he could not represent all the factions fighting against Assad. Ghalioun had particular problems extending his authority over the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that was, until lately, the main fighting arm of the rebellion against Assad.
After having raised its flag as the main opposition force fighting the Syrian armed forces, and becoming a beacon for dissidents and army deserters who joined to fight the regime, the FSA is no longer the sole force in the fight against Assad. As was the case in Egypt, the Muslim Brothers, who today are undoubtedly in the forefront of the fighting against the regime, were not present at the birth of the revolt against Assad, which was the result of the mishandling of local protests by the security forces.
As in the Egyptian case, in Syria the Muslim Brothers have succeeded in appropriating (some would call it hijacking) the revolt and ultimately becoming its backbone. Moreover, the Muslim Brothers, with their worldwide organization, provide the conduit through which Muslim fighters from around the globe are coming to join the ranks in the battle against Assad. As a result, the FSA has beefed up its ranks with bearded fighters from east and west whose “resumes” include battlegrounds such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, and Tunisia, and even includes some Muslim volunteers from European countries who rallied to the cause of Islam to fight the heretic Alawite rulers. The influx of Muslim volunteers has become of such amplitude as to lead Russia to state in March that Assad was fighting al-Qaeda-backed “terrorists,” including at least 15,000 foreign fighters.2
Evidence of the enlistment of Muslim radicals against the Syrian regime is becoming widespread and reflects the possible evolution of Syria as a magnet for Muslim fighters who once sought jihad and martyrdom in Iraq and Afghanistan:
a) In his first interview in nearly six months, President Assad stated that his country had captured foreign mercenaries who were fighting for the opposition and he was ready to show them to the world. Assad added that religious extremists and al-Qaeda loyalists from outside Syria were among the forces fighting his regime. Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, claimed that Syria had a list of “foreign terrorists” killed inside the country, including “one French citizen, one British and one Belgian.” Earlier in May, Syria sent a list to the United Nations with 26 names of foreign nationals it had apprehended, claiming most of them were members of al-Qaeda.3
b) The UN Secretary General declared on May 16 that he believed Islamist militants from al-Qaeda must be behind two deadly suicide car bomb attacks in Syria on May 10.4
c) From obituaries published in the Arab world, one can learn of the participation of fighters coming from as far as Tunisia, specifically from the southeastern town of Ben Guerdane which lost six fighters in Syria. Though the families have seen no corpses or proof of death, a video carrying the black flag of al-Qaeda has appeared eulogizing five of the men and stating they were killed in Homs.5
d) In February, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged Muslims to come to the aid of Syrian rebels. That call coincided with reports from Iraq that fighters and arms were pouring into Syria.6
e) Other armed groups have emerged along the Turkish, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Jordanian borders to wage jihad in Syria against “the heretic Baathist regime.” Recruited from among the ranks of Sunni radicals, they come, for the most part, from a regrouping of Jund el-Cham, Osbat al-Ansar and Fatah el-Islam. These groups, in disarray, had found refuge in Tripoli, Lebanon, as well as in Turkey and Jordan, and have funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Until December 2011, these groups had no territory under their control except for several neighborhoods in Homs and refugee camps located in Turkey.7
f) At the beginning of May a ship loaded with 150 tons of weapons and mmunition destined for the rebels in Syria was detained in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli.8 “The case of the ship Lutfullah 2, which was intercepted by the Lebanese Army, proves that Libya and Turkey are cooperating with other states to send murderous weapons to terrorist groups, in order to wreak more carnage and destruction,” wrote the Syrian ambassador to the UN in a letter to the Secretary General and the Security Council.9
Lebanese authorities said they had seized a large consignment of Libyan weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and heavy caliber ammunition, from the ship which was intercepted in the Mediterranean. These weapons probably originated in the plundered warehouses of the Libyan army. Moreover, according to Iranian sources, Abd el-Hakim Belhaj, the notorious al-Qaeda commander of the Tripoli area in Libya and a member of the Transitional Government, had conducted negotiations in Turkey with Syrian rebels regarding the supply of weapons and ammunition to rebel forces in Syria. According to the same source, Belhaj was heading a Libyan contingent of 700 fighters.10
The gradual transformation of the Syrian opposition into a movement led by extremist Muslims inspired by, allied, and coordinated with al-Qaeda does not serve the opposition well. The majority of Syrians do not identify with those radicals. On the contrary, the more the opposition wears the mask of al-Qaeda, the more there is cohesion in the ranks around Assad. Assad himself has shown resolve to fight the rebels at the price of becoming an international pariah. The disintegration of the opposition plays into his hands, as well as the fact that his war is being waged against al-Qaeda.
Assad Issues a Warning
In his latest interview, Assad points at those elements who are behind the unrest in Syria and warns that by trying to undermine the Syrian regime they might suffer themselves. Thus, Assad is signaling that he has not given up his assets around the Arab world and that he would willingly use his subversive capabilities if and when needed: “For the leaders of these countries, it’s becoming clear that it is not “Spring” but chaos, and as I have said, if you sow chaos in Syria you might be infected by it yourself, and they understand this perfectly well.”11
In a well-orchestrated move that could be interpreted as a direct response to the Assad declaration, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates urged their citizens on May 19 to stay away from Lebanon, citing security concerns in a country where fighting prompted by sectarian tensions in neighboring Syria has unsettled areas in the north. The foreign ministries of the three Gulf states urged all those already in Lebanon to leave because of the “security situation” in the country. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon warned Saudis in April to stay away from Lebanon’s border areas after two Saudi citizens were kidnapped and tortured for eight days before being freed in a joint Saudi-Lebanese operation. Syria has accused all these countries of subversive activities, and funding and arming the rebel opposition.12
Tensions Erupt in Northern Lebanon
In Lebanon, considered to be Syria’s backyard, the northern city of Tripoli has become a base for the armed rebels, according to the Syrians. Damascus has sent a letter to the United Nations accusing the Lebanese of helping al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood to take root along the Syrian border, and criticizing Turkey and Libya for providing arms to Syrian rebels:
“Some Lebanese areas next to the Syrian border are incubating terrorist elements from al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are interfering with the security of Syrian citizens and working to undermine the United Nations Special Envoy’s plan,” Syrian UN ambassador Bashar Ja’afari wrote. “In some areas (of Lebanon)…warehouses have been set up for weapons and ammunition that is arriving in Lebanon illegally, either by sea, or sometimes through the use of planes of specific countries to transport weapons to Lebanon and then smuggle them to Syria, under the excuse that they (the aircraft) are carrying humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees,” Ja’afari said. He specifically stated that charities run by Lebanese Salafists and the Future Movement, led by the son of assassinated statesman Rafik al-Hariri, were being used to provide safe haven to terrorists in Lebanon.13
In mid-May, under Syrian pressure, the Lebanese government arrested a Salafist sheikh, Shadi al-Mawlawi, known for his virulent attacks on Assad. This was in fact the signal for the beginning of hostilities between the parties. Armed clashes between the pro-Assad Alawite minority in Tripoli and the Sunni anti-Assad forces erupted and have sown havoc in the city, endangering the entire, fragile political stability of Lebanon itself. The dangers of destabilization have become so obvious as to trigger the Lebanese government to send in the army to separate the fighting factions and establish a temporary and precarious truce.
The events in Lebanon provide a unique perspective. In fact, the street fighting between Alawites and Sunnis is a reflection of the wider war between two alliances, with Syria, Iran, and Hizbullah opposed by an alliance led by Saudi Arabia and its allies, including its Salafist and Muslim fundamentalist troops. In addition, the battle over the future of Syria is symptomatic of the revival of the Cold War between the West – with the U.S., UK, France, and Turkey backing the anti-Assad forces – and Russia, steadfast behind the Alawite regime.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
1. Zeina Karam, “Syrian Opposition Faces Fractures, Infighting,” AP, May 20, 2012.
2. Jim Heintz, “Assad: Ready to Show Foreign Mercenaries to World,” AP, May 16, 2012; Lin Noueihed, “Tunisian Islamists Join Jihad Against Syria’s Assad,” Reuters, May 14, 2012.
4. Ban Ki-moon, BBC News, May 18, 2012.
7. Centre Francais de recherchÃ© sur le Renseignement, “The Lebanonization of Syria, Report on the Actors of the Syrian Crisis,” Paris, January 2012.
8. Renseignor, le renseignement par la radio, 13 Mai 2012.
9. Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols, “Syria Accuses Lebanon of Incubating Terrorists,” Reuters, May 18, 2012.
10. Renseignor, 13 Fevrier 2012.
11. Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Syria’s Assad: ‘Nations that Sow Chaos Will Suffer,’” Reuters, May 17, 2012.
12. Reuters, May 19, 2012.
13. Charbonneau and Nichols.