Al Qaeda in Syria: A Source of Trouble in More Ways than One

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GESI Analysis, 8/2013

The concern of the international community by the presence of jihadist groups in Syria is more than justified. Estimates of foreign volunteers put the figure between 6,000 and 10,000, much higher than the number of foreign volunteers who fought in the insurgency in Iraq or Afghanistan.

There is an important representation of Saudis, Libyans and Tunisians. It is also easy to find Iraqis, Jordanians, Moroccans and Chechens. According to the Spanish Interior Ministry, hundreds of individuals residing in Spain have gone to Syria to join jihadist groups mostly, and eleven of them have engaged in suicide bombings.

At the same time, the jihadi groups now control more territory in Syria than placed in Iraq. And foreigners play a more dynamic role compared to that realized during the Iraqi insurgency. In Syria, 'jihad brigades' control check -points, receive and provide training, direct factions and even act as local governors. Syria has thus become one of the most notorious examples of the window of opportunity offered by the Arab uprisings and the violent radical Islamist groups.

However, if we look at the facts in detail and seek to refine the analysis, we found a more complex than it might seem at first sight.

In April 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq, the screen name of the branch of Al Qaeda in that country changed its name to be renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in clear reference to the role it is playing in the Civil War Syria. In the middle of the last decade Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi until his death in June 2006, was one of the most violent groups, though not one of the most numerous in the panorama of the Iraqi insurgency. It was also one of the most rivaled against other insurgent factions, against Shiite militias but also against the local tribes and other Sunni Islamist groups such as the Islamic Army in Iraq. This eventually led to the Sunni tribes turned against him forming the Al Anbar Awakening with U.S. support. Since then, Al Qaeda in Iraq lost much of its strength and, although still capable of carrying out complex actions such as the assault on the Abu Ghraib prison in July, which managed to free five hundred of its members, or a string terribly bloody as the Aug. 28 attacks, the truth is that no longer controls Iraqi cities (as happened in Fallujah last half decade), or poses an existential threat to the government in Baghdad.

Faithful to the curriculum of violence and antagonism, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (the franchise of Al Qaeda in both countries) is becoming a source of problems for more than one player in the area. In addition to fighting the forces loyal to the Syrian regime, Al Qaeda militants are also facing rebels grouped in the Free Syrian Army (which is not a centralized organization, but a shared flag for very different groups ) and, by if not they are little, also attacking other Islamist factions, including the main jihadist organization in the country: Jabhat to Nusra, established in January 2012 with the help of Al Qaeda in Iraq and inserted in the list of terrorist organizations of the United States in December of the same year.

So far Nusra Jabhat to being one of the most militant groups of the Syrian insurgency, but those credentials have only to feed the desire for supremacy of Al Qaeda in Iraq on the Syrian boarder. The rivalry of the organization is so strong that it has led to a clash with the very rhetorical Ayman Al Zawahiri, supreme command of Al Qaeda Central, which the Iraqi branch has come to refute publicly. Indeed, last April Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, announced the addition of the Jabhat Al Nusra to its organization. A move that came as a surprise to Jabhat Al Nusra itself. A few days Abu Mohamed Al Golani leader Jabhat Al Nusra publicly acknowledged the help that his organization had received so far by Al Qaeda in Iraq but flatly rejected the eventual union. In his message reaffirmed obedience of Jabhat Al Nusra to Al Qaeda Central, through allegiance to Ayman Al Zawahiri, but left clear their intention of Jabhat Al Nusra continuing as an independent entity.

Two months later a letter from Ayman Al Zawahiri corrected Al Baghdadi for the attempted forced marriage and Al Golani for publicly rejecting the offer and openly recognize their links with Al Qaeda Central. In the letter, Al Zawahiri established the spheres of influence of each organization: the group of Al Baghdadi will operate in Iraq and Jabhat Al Nusra in Syria. According to Al Zawahiri, this would not be an obstacle for both groups would mutually promote exchanging weapons, volunteers and money.

Well, a few days later Al Baghdadi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, publicly rejected the guidelines of Al Qaeda Central claiming that the divine mandate to help the brothers in Syria should prevail over all other considerations. A few days later, the argument of Al Baghdadi was followed by a much harder message in the form against Al Zawahiri, written by another senior member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Abu Mohamed Al Adnani. Al Adnani argued inter alia that the division of effort between Syria and Iraq given by Al Zawahiri would recognize the arbitrary colonial borders. Al Adnani also reproached the leader of Al Qaeda Central would have made ​​that decision without consulting them, implicitly accusing him of tyranny. Has thus opened a gap between Al Qaeda and its Iraqi affiliate Central (with the problems that existed since its origins, as reflected in the documents captured to Bin Laden in Abbottabad) and between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Nusra Jabhat. In the months following the rupture has polarized radical online forums, fueling the debate between supporters of one side and the other (being more numerous in favor of Al Qaeda in Iraq), and has materialized in a bloody way in the streets and fields Syria. Meanwhile the authority of Ayman Al Zawahiri, and the already battered Al Qaeda Central, has been damaged.

Last September, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took control of the town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, defeating and driving out the forces of the Free Syrian Army who had previously occupied the city. The leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq accused the Army will establish a Western-style democracy. Al Qaeda militants have also fight against Jabhat Al Nusra jihadists in some places, such as in Shadadi on 23 September, causing fatalities and appropriating their weapons. In other areas of the country are both radical organizations, however, cooperate and that in practice the command of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has high doses of decentralization, and friction or understanding depend heavily on local leaders. All this adds further complexity to the map of the Syrian insurgency.

In any case, with regard to non- Islamist groups, the attitude towards the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is increasingly defined. In early October the six main armed rebel groups issued a joint statement in which ordered that al Qaeda militants withdrew from Azaz. In fact, the Supreme Military Council of the Syrian rebels (which is actually a less unified than its name entity suggests, and one of whose leaders was killed by Al Qaeda last July) considered militants of Al Qaeda in Iraq as hostile and the soldiers of the Al Assad regime.

The antagonism ‘tout azimuts’ displayed by the rebellious Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda has a number of strategic, easily deducible consequences that are interesting to highlight:

  • It reduces armed pressure on the Syrian regime, since it forces the other rebel groups divert part of their resources to the fight against Islamic states of Iraq and the Levant.
  • It discourages the support of the international community in favor of the rebel victory. This is particularly serious in the case of the United States. At this point either end of the conflict potential is negative to the interests of Washington. Moreover, a third possibility is added (perhaps the most likely of all): the permanent balkanization of the country. According to U.S. military intelligence there are 1,200 different groups fighting against the regime of Assad. The scenario of continued fragmentation in time, which would make Syria a failed state, is not encouraging for many reasons (humanitarian and regional stability first), and one of them is that some of these fiefdoms are going to be controlled by jihadist groups.
  • In connection with the above, the activity of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and other jihadi groups hinders the delivery of weapons to rebel groups, which also indirectly benefits the Syrian regime. It is proven (it can be contrasted in some videos) that weapons supplied have ended up falling into the hands of the jihadists (by theft, sale or abandonment). Under these conditions it would be unwise for the international community to embark on a program to arm the rebels on a large scale and tilt the military balance. As a result it is more likely that the rebels remain dependent on what until now has been their main source of supply: the capture of weapons to the Syrian regular army.
  • Finally, if the rebel groups end up forming a strong and effective front against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Washington may end up embarking on a covert operation to strike a series of fatal blows to the most extreme jihadists (the reward of Al Baghdadi is ten million, second only to the reward hanging over the head of al Qaeda Central, Ayman Al Zawahiri). The rebel support against the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda will likely become a sine qua non condition for receiving more help from Washington in the fight against Al-Assad 's regime.

Many militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are foreigners and their ideology is particularly extreme. Its brutal behavior and its imposition of Sharia should prevent them to win the 'hearts and minds' of the population. The long-term future of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is not exactly promising. But until it ends up overshadowed, it will be a source of problems for the Syrian regime and for other rebel groups. 

Edited by: International Security Study Group. Granada (Spain). ISSN: 2340-8421.

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