Jihadist Presence in the Syrian Uprising

4 MINS READAug 1, 2012 | 10:30 GMT
Jihadist Presence in the Syrian Uprising
Members of a jihadist group train near Aleppo, Syria, on July 19

At the beginning of the uprising in Syria, the opposition's fighters were mostly defected Syrian army soldiers and Syrian citizens. But as the rebel movement grew in size and intensity, reports emerged of fighters from Libya, Tunisia and other North African states joining the fight against the regime of President Bashar al Assad. Despite the influx of North African fighters, however, the opposition remained poorly armed and displayed no clear and organized command structure.

By the end of 2011, it became evident that Syrian citizens, army defectors and North African fighters were not alone in battling the regime. Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist faction, claimed a Dec. 23 double vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack on Syria's Office of the Security Directorate in Damascus — the opposition's first major blow against hardened security infrastructure. Since that time, Islamist and Salafist jihadists have been trickling into Syria from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan. Even with the removal of the al Assad regime, elements of the growing and increasingly diverse rebel movement, especially the jihadists, can be expected to sustain an insurgency that will have spillover effects in the region.

During the Iraqi insurgency, thousands of Syrians left their country to fight U.S. and other forces in Iraq. Many of the jihadists who fought in Iraq are now fighting against Syria's regime. Other foreign Islamist fighters in Syria are answering a call from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who urged Muslims around the world — and specifically those from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — to fight and topple the Syrian regime.

These foreign fighters bring with them expertise in making bombs as well as considerable experience accumulated from fighting in a number of battlefields — especially in Iraq. Many of the jihadists in Syria have tremendous knowledge of the assembly and use of improvised explosive devices. Jihadists from Jabhat al-Nusra have even claimed that they are now using explosively formed penetrators.

The foreign jihadists are also better prepared and much more willing to stage suicide bombings against regime targets. At least 10 suicide bombings have been confirmed in Syria since January, and many more have probably gone unconfirmed. The jihadists have also staged large vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks against regime security targets. For instance, Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed many of the large vehicle-borne bombings in Damascus and Aleppo.

Disagreements and Cooperation

The Syrian rebels know that the presence of jihadists on the battlefield may discourage the support of the international community. There have also been disagreements between the rebels and the jihadists on the execution of the conflict and on wider social aspects, such as the consumption of alcohol. The rebels even had to intervene to gain the release of Western journalists allegedly kidnapped by jihadists.

Despite these tensions, many of the jihadist groups in Syria are seeking to convince the more secular rebel groups and the local population that they are not a threat. Some jihadist groups in Syria appear more cognizant of the dangers of alienating themselves, a lesson they learned in Iraq when local Sunnis formed the Anbar Awakening to counter jihadists. The jihadists in Syria are adapting their tactics to avoid making the same mistake. In many areas of Syria, particularly in Deir el-Zour, jihadist cells are relying heavily on local fighters to bolster their ranks, with only the upper levels dominated by foreign fighters.

Many rebel units have set aside their misgivings to work closely with the jihadists. The jihadists are often well-funded by the Gulf states and, more important, are disciplined and experienced and possess significant skills in the crafting of bombs. These capabilities have often proved decisive against a regime far better equipped with heavy weapons. Indeed, rebels in areas hard-pressed by regime offensives have often been very willing to accept the jihadists' help.

Problems on the Horizon

It is clear just how disparate the Syrian opposition has become; it contains a mix of Islamist and Salafist jihadists, radical Muslims, non-religious local and foreign fighters and al Qaeda remnants. A common thread binds these groups: the desire to bring down the al Assad regime. But once that goal is achieved, it is not assured that all rebel elements will accept the appointment of a new government as the end of their fight. Some of these elements may continue the insurgency.

The radical jihadist elements are the most likely to continue fighting, especially native Syrians who returned to the country from Iraq to fight. Unlike the original rebels, many of the jihadist fighters have a goal beyond overthrowing the regime. Their overarching objective is to achieve an Islamic state in Syria. Even if a more Islamist government comes to power, there is a significant difference between Islamist representation in parliament and an Islamic state. Any Islamist presence in government would likely come from Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists who are at odds with strict jihadist doctrine. Therefore, even if the al Assad regime is removed and replaced, additional unrest and insurgency can be expected.

Furthermore, jihadist fighters are not guaranteed to stay in Syria. Instead, there will likely be a jihadist outflow to bordering countries and specifically to Iraq, where there has already been a slight resurgence of jihadist activity. This raises the possibility that jihadists may use the momentum in Syria to return to Iraq and aid a displaced Sunni community looking to reverse the gains made over the past decade by the Shiite-dominated government supported by Iran.

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