National Security & Defense

Defeating Zarqawi’s Dream

Sunnis backing Assad are the best defense against al-Qaeda and it affiliates in Syria.

On October 25, Syrian state media announced that Abu Muhammad al-Golani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, had been killed by the Syrian military near Latakia in northwest Syria. According to the U.S. State Department, al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria have carried out over 600 attacks in Syria, including more than 40 car bombings from November 2011 to December 2012. The State Department has designated al-Nusra and affiliated organizations as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) — an assessment shared by the Syrian government, which is fighting al-Qaeda and its affiliates, many of whom have come from outside Syria to join the insurgency there. Shortly after the announcement, the Syrian government withdrew their claim that Golani had been killed. Whether he is still alive is unknown as of this writing.

What is known is that Golani was the protégé of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist and leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who conducted a campaign of systematic violence in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. Zarqawi’s vision in Iraq was to generate sectarian conflict and pull the U.S. into a Sunni–Shia civil war. His campaign against coalition forces and Iraq’s Shia over the three-year span was relentless. Shia militias responded in kind, and the sectarian violence that followed continues to this day. Zarqawi’s dream of protracted civilizational conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam has been realized and is daily playing itself out in Syria. As Middle East expert Bruce Riedel noted earlier this year, the legacy of Zarqawi, who was killed in Iraq in 2006, survives — nowhere more prominently than in Syria.

There is speculation that Zarqawi’s relevance was exaggerated — by al-Qaeda, which sought a more prominent role in Iraq’s insurgency; by the U.S., which sought to put a face to the enemy on the ground; and by Zarqawi himself, who sought the macabre notoriety that accompanies terrorists to the dark corners of the world. Whatever the case, Zarqawi’s disciples today are legion, much like the visages of warrior-martyrs on television and the Internet — latter-day Robin Hoods, whose narrow escapes and thwarting of the great powers of the world become the stuff of legend.

Zarqawi’s insurrectionist efforts, like Osama bin Laden’s, found their origins in Afghanistan in the 1980s. There Zarqawi saw firsthand that a superpower could be lured in and brought to its knees. The U.S. saw an opportunity to cripple the Soviet Union and, in so doing, was (at a minimum) a tacit observer of the creation of the terrorist monster that thrives worldwide a generation later. Like Iraq a decade ago and Afghanistan a generation ago, Syria today presents al-Qaeda with fertile ground for both recruitment and advancing its extremism worldwide.

In Iraq, as Zarqawi and al-Qaeda turned their focus against coalition forces and Iraq’s Shias, and then from Iraq’s Shias to irreverent or non-compliant Sunnis, the Sunni tribesmen rose up against al-Qaeda, forging an alliance of convenience with coalition forces. The conflict in Syria has increasingly come to resemble that of Iraq a decade ago: Foreign fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda wage a relentless campaign of violence against civilians. This resulted in what became known as the “Sunni Awakening” in Iraq, in which Sunni tribesmen, who had initially resisted the American-led occupation of Iraq, recognized in al-Qaeda a greater evil. It is not impossible to foresee this scenario playing out in Syria, especially as the atrocities of al-Qaeda and its affiliates begin to outpace those of the regime.

Initially, this seemed unlikely. The Assad regime foolishly chose to respond to the Arab Spring of 2011 as it had to the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising in 1982 — by crushing it ruthlessly. In the Arab Spring, however, it was putting down not an extremist revolt but an initially peaceful reform protest that rapidly devolved into armed rebellion. It has come to be dominated by extremist insurgents, many if not most of whom are foreign rather than Syrian rebels, funded by Gulf-state wealth and with Islamist sympathies. Minorities — indeed, any Syrians who run afoul of the al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists who have flooded into Syria since 2011 — fear for their lives. This situation may create a turning point in Syria as it did in Iraq.

The Assad regime recently staved off U.S. military intervention by dismantling its chemical-weapons capabilities. But more significant than external events is whether Assad has any legitimacy among his Sunni citizens following the sectarian violence that characterized the conflict in 2011. Reporter Patrick J. McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times traveled to Syria earlier this year, where he observed a reality more complicated than is generally portrayed by Western media. “It’s clear that . . . the government has considerable control and substantial support among segments of the population,” many of whom had come to support Assad “after losing relatives to the rebels,” McDonnell wrote. He was struck in particular by the emergence of local pro-government militias that “have been transformed in the last year from ill-organized neighborhood watch groups into a coherent paramilitary organization.” Such militias are vital to counterinsurgency efforts. Assad’s governing coalition has always consisted of Alawi, Shia, Druze, and Christians, and these groups are all represented among the militias. However, McDonnell noted also the presence of many Sunni militiamen in Damascus, which complicates the story line, proffered by Western interventionists, that the conflict is exclusively sectarian.

As Riedel noted, al-Qaeda called Zarqawi “al Gharib” — “the stranger.” Alienated because of views regarded as too extreme by extremists, Zarqawi nonetheless set the standard for the next generation of Islamist terrorists. The words of Albert Camus’s iconic stranger would have been entirely appropriate for Zarqawi the stranger as he lay mortally wounded, surrounded by coalition forces: “For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” The next generation of terrorists, with Syria as the proving ground, will seek out their own immortality as Zarqawi did.

The U.S. may have killed Zarqawi, but the turning of the tide in Iraq had much more to do with the Sunni tribesmen who decided to align with the U.S. instead of with al-Qaeda. Iraq’s Sunni Awakening offers hope for Syria and is perhaps the most plausible solution to the violent extremism that threatens to take over there. This would also be a step away from Zarqawi’s vision of drawing America into an intra-civilizational sectarian maelstrom between Sunni and Shia. But the stakes are high. If al-Qaeda and its affiliates succeed in promoting sectarian violence, Syria may end up with a government resembling the Taliban — not in landlocked South Asia but on the shores of the Mediterranean.

— Andrew Doran served on the Executive Secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State. His views are his own. 

Andrew Doran served on the State Department’s policy planning staff from 2018 to 2021. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Philos Project.

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