By Bilal Y. Saab, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Bilal Y. Saab is a visiting fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. This article is based on a recent analysis by the author that appeared in Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst. The views expressed are the author’s own.
With evidence of jihadist activity in Syria surfacing over the past several months, the issue now is not so much the likelihood of al-Qaeda’s presence in the Syrian conflict, but the nature of its involvement and the threat it poses to Syria’s future, regional security, and Western interests in the Middle East.
In a recent analysis in Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst on al-Qaeda in Syria, I revealed evidence of the multiplying jihadist cells operating in the country. Indeed, based on secondary Arabic sources and recent interviews in Europe and the Middle East with Western and Arab intelligence officers and analysts working on Syria, the Syrian battlefield now appears awash with al-Qaeda-linked jihadist cells. And even if some of these cells do not have a clear connection to al-Qaeda’s franchises in the region, or to the central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they have the same goals and operate in the same religious universe. The reality is that there is money, there are men, there is dedication, and there is some awareness on the part of al-Qaeda that the crisis in Syria presents an opportunity to expand in the Levant.
But for the jihadists’ presence to morph from a disorganized and cellular structure to a harmonious, powerful insurgency, it will need a charismatic leader capable of unifying the various cells and providing a clear sense of direction.
No less important for the potential establishment of an al-Qaeda insurgent movement in Syria is a clear commitment by al-Qaeda’s senior leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, to invest and create a durable foothold in Syria. While al-Zawahiri issued a statement in February calling for jihad in Syria (this statement being much far combative than his remarks in July 2011), his level of commitment to the conflict is still questionable. The al-Qaeda leader has a clear interest in fulfilling his organization’s mission in the Levant, but little suggests that he has instructed his operatives and followers to go “all-in” on Syria. Perhaps he is not in a position to do so given the aggressive global campaign against his organization and the massive setbacks it has had to deal with over the past 2 to 3 years with the killing of Osama bin Laden and several other terrorist masterminds. But if he starts making more statements on Syria, singles out a particular jihadist group, sends a veteran operative or a close advisor to unify the ranks and supervise jihadist activity in Syria, and instructs al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to provide further financial and logistical assistance to the jihadis in Syria, it would suggest al-Zawahiri has set his sights firmly on Syria.
Yet even if al-Zawahiri does not commit, and no unifying leader emerges, the course of events in Syria could be enough for jihadists in Syria to establish a more solid foothold. “They will figure it out eventually,” one Lebanese military intelligence officer in Beirut told me. With Islamist radicalization broadening across the country, sectarian warfare escalating between Sunnis and Alawites and Christians taking up arms for the first time to protect themselves, the conflict could eventually cause the complete disintegration of the country if outside powers do not intervene. Under such anarchy, al-Qaeda has tended to flourish, at least if the Iraq experience is any guide. “What we’re seeing in Syria is another Iraq in the making, I swear,” lamented one Jordanian intelligence officer.
Still, knowing what kind of presence al-Qaeda has in Syria is one thing, but devising a strategy and mustering the necessary political will to combat it – or at least contain it – is a different matter altogether. Terrorist cells are usually countered through a sophisticated law enforcement and counter-terrorism strategy, the backbone of which are good intelligence. A terrorist insurgent presence, in contrast, has to be fought with a comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign that operates in parallel with a state-building exercise. Far more resources go into the second strategy given the formidable long-term threat that insurgencies pose, but that does not mean that the threat posed by cells is less severe or easier to counter. Cells are harder to break because they live and plan away from public eyes and have focused and limited goals. The authorities can hit, miss, but still learn when tackling insurgencies. However, with terrorist cells, the margin of error is almost zero.
Al-Qaeda’s potentially changing status in Syria poses challenges to those who have an interest in countering the group, namely the Syrian government, regional states, and Western powers. The challenge is that any effective strategy to fight the jihadists, given the mixed and fluid status of their presence, has to incorporate elements of both counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. The problem is that under the present circumstances, neither strategy can be properly implemented given the absence of Western boots on the ground in Syria, the Syrian government’s differing priorities from the West (its first and foremost goal is to crush the uprising, not fight al-Qaeda), and the inability and/or unwillingness of regional states to pursue a more aggressive policy on Syria and enter Syrian territory to hunt down terrorist networks. The result is that al-Qaeda has been allowed by default to operate freely in this relatively open Syrian space using the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey as a major transit point.
With the total absence of any domestic or foreign force able to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing a strategic base in Syria for the entire Levant, it is reasonable to assume that it is only a matter of time before another al-Qaeda insurgent movement is born in the Middle East. Those who believe al-Qaeda is dead should closely watch events in Syria: if Ayman al-Zawahiri plays his cards right, the terrorist organization could be reborn in that part of the world.