Former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab said today that the Bashar al-Assad regime only controls about 30 percent of the country’s territory, and rebels also claimed this week to have shot down a fighter jet. But are they getting help from al Qaeda? CNN Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson discusses the speculation and what it could mean in a post-al-Assad Syria.
So, is al Qaeda playing a role in Syria?
It’s certainly got a lot of experience just across the border in the east to Iraq, and there’s certainly evidence that it has come across the border, that it does have cells operating within Syria. The former ambassadors who we talked to earlier this year said they were already seeing indications of it, and the fighting on the ground does seem to begin to bear that out. [There is] evidence of bomb making and roadside bombs that target al-Assad’s forces on the highways. Suicide bombings have been used as well. So the evidence does seem to be there now.
If al Qaeda then is helping the Syrian rebels, what does that suggest for future relations with that country?
Well, it’s one of the very problematic parts of the sort of mosaic of opposition forces that there are. You have a lot of people in the opposition. Remember, it began as street protests and it was only because al-Assad’s regime cracked down that they began to take up weapons.
So this is something that has grown from a street protest into an armed uprising that al Qaeda has tried to take advantage of. Al Qaeda’s…core level wants to exploit the Arab spring in any way possible. So at an institutional level, they want to exploit it, but how does that affect relations? Well, it’s going to complicate relations because when you support the opposition – how do you know whether some of that support, whether it’s technical or communications equipment or military equipment, is going to end up in the hands of al Qaeda?
What happens after Bashar Al-Assad is gone? How deeply rooted have these organizations become? When you talk to people who were involved in the grassroots protest at the beginning, they don’t support having al Qaeda in the country?
They don’t want them. They see this is a very worrying and troubling development…This makes them very afraid and more likely to side with al-Assad and it’s more likely to make the war last longer and give al Qaeda the chance to exploit the situation further.
We knew that al Qaeda was coming, they were in Afghanistan. They went in to Iraq. Is there any suggestion as to where they’re coming from to get into Syria?
Well, the expectation is that some of them will have crossed the border from Iraq, which is on the eastern border of Syria. They would have crossed over that way.
But there’s also a sense among many people that al-Assad encouraged al Qaeda to transit through his country to sort of set up on the fringes of it as long as they didn’t destabilize Syria in order to undermine U.S. efforts in Iraq. So in some senses, some of those al Qaeda members will have been lying low on the ground.