Our collective excitement at the possibility that the Assad regime will be destroyed, and the Iranian ayatollahs weakened in the process, is blurring our vision and preventing us from seeing the rise of al-Qaeda in Syria. In March of this year, jihadis mounted seven attacks against Assad. By June, they had led 66 “operations,” and over half of these were on Syria’s capital, Damascus. The Syrian opposition is benefiting hugely from the terrorist organization’s determination, discipline, combat experience, religious fervor, and ability to strike the Assad regime where it hurts most.
The territory in the Middle East that al-Qaeda covets most is of course Saudi Arabia, but Syria is next on the list. Now, Syria is not Syria to jihadis, but part of Bilaad al-Shaam, what the region was called when when borders did not divide the lands we now call Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and, crucially, Israel and the Palestinian territories. To al-Qaeda, these modern-day countries are based on artificial borders created after the First World War by the British and French, descendants of the eleventh-century Crusaders who occupied Jerusalem. Yes, al-Qaeda has a long historical memory, but it also has plans for its future. And in Bilaad al-Shaam, the future is looking good for al-Qaeda.
As long as Assad governs Syria, brigades of Arab and other Muslim fighters will continue to gather in Bilaad al-Shaam to support the jihad of the Sunni Muslims against an Alawite infidel, as they see it. Assad offers them a rallying point. In the process, al-Qaeda’s local franchises will win support and create alliances with Syria’s tribes and Sunni religious leaders. In the event of Assad’s falling, al-Qaeda will probably gain de facto control of parts of Syria to serve as a new strategic base for jihadis in the Middle East, or at least enjoy tribal protection in the broader regions with Iraq and Jordan. A new government in Syria not only will be indebted to these fighters, but also will be in need of their cooperation to minimize the potential of militias fighting each other.
Just as Syria is not Syria to al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda is not al-Qaeda as we know it to the rebel forces of the Free Syrian Army. For Syrian opposition soldiers, the al-Qaeda fighters are welcome Arab and Muslim volunteers, mujahideen, religious brethren who call themselves Jabhat al-Nusrah li-Ahli al-Shaam (Front for the Victory of the Levantine people), among other names. Not since the days of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets has global jihadism found this rare combination of native Sunni Muslim hospitality, a powerful cause, available cash, eager Arab support, Western acquiescence, and the constant arrival of young Muslims to fight under its banner to create an Islamist government. While exact numbers of jihadist fighters are hard to come by, it is a fact that in every crucial battle of the last three months, from Aleppo to Homs to Deir al-Zor to Damascus, al-Qaeda has been prominent.
For the foreseeable future, the Assad government will continue to face violent uprisings in city after city. It will lose control over its borders with Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon, and foreign fighters will arrive in droves because jihad in Bilaad al-Shaam holds several powerful promises.
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