First, in early Muslim scripture and history, the words “Bilaad al-Shaam” appear regularly, with special reference to jihad there at the End Times. Today’s jihadists see themselves as part of this prophecy and expect to earn high religious status as martyrs.
Second, historically, Bilaad al-Shaam included Palestine and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Jihadists have regularly argued that winning Syria will bring them one step closer to liberating Jerusalem. From Damascus, an army of Muslim martyrs could be mobilized to attack Israel. To jihadists, who only two years ago could not dream of attacking Damascus, their new ambition of launching attacks on Israel is not daydreaming.
Third, the Assad regime represents an Alawite minority sect that was reviled by the 13th-century Syrian imam Ibn Taymiya. Ibn Taymiya’s teachings contributed heavily to the Saudi school of Wahhabism. Ibn Taymiya called for the killing of Syrian Alawites, whom he referred to as Nusayris. For Sunni jihadist fighters, the conflict in Syria is religiously underwritten by their most important teacher.
Fourth, unlike Shiite-dominated Iraq, Syria is mostly Sunni. And unlike Afghanistan, Syria is Arab. Al-Qaeda has been in exile from the Sunni Arab lands because of clampdowns by governments in the region. Bilaad al-Shaam offers jihadists a home in the heart of the Arab world. This makes them relevant again to the daily politics of the Middle East.
Whether Assad stays or goes, jihadism now has a strong foothold in Syria. The Free Syrian Army may wish to dismiss its al-Qaeda allies as irrelevant in order to reassure the West and continue receiving Western support, but the jihadi websites and footage of al-Qaeda fighting in Damascus and Aleppo tell a different story.
There are no easy options in Syria. We cannot credibly ask the FSA to jettison its bravest fighters while we refuse to send Western troops. And to send Western arms and manpower into the country is to sign up for an eventual fight with al-Qaeda for control of Syria the morning after Assad’s fall. Al-Qaeda’s and the West’s interests merged in Afghanistan against the Soviets; Will they do so again in Syria? And will our common enemies — Hezbollah and Iran — hold this unmentionable alliance together after Assad? No, because that same history teaches us not to ride the al-Qaeda tiger: It will soon enough turn on liberal Arabs, the West, and Israel. In Syria, with or without Assad, the only certain result will be the presence of al-Qaeda’s offshoots. We are yet to grasp the consequences of this reality.
— Ed Husain is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He can be followed on Twitter via @ed_husain