Al-Qaida Surges Into Syria

Aug 15, 2013
Originally published on August 15, 2013 3:58 pm

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has always blamed the conflict in Syria on terrorists, even when it started as a popular uprising.

Now, he might finally be right. An affiliate of al-Qaida in Iraq is surging into Syria. It’s called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

This new group is in competition with the original Syrian al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, but they are seemingly aligned — along with rebel groups — in the effort to oust Assad.

“In the vacuum that’s being created in Syria, where there is something of a stalemate, the al-Qaida affiliates have been able to gain ground and create a presence that at least in the eyes of many Syrians they hope can eventually tip the battle in their favor against the Assad regime and overthrow it,” Bruce Hoffman, director of security studies at Georgetown University, told Here & Now.


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Washington Post “But with its radical ideology and tactics such as kidnappings and beheadings, the group has stamped its identity on the communities in which it is present, including, crucially, ­areas surrounding the main border crossings with Turkey.”

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The Syrian government has always blamed the country's two-year civil war on terrorists, even when initially it was a popular uprising. But now a close observer says the government of Bashar al-Assad may finally be right. He says al-Qaida's organization in Iraq is now playing a major role in the fight against Assad in Syria. And there are also skirmishes between fighters within Syria.

Bruce Hoffman is director of Security Studies at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation. He joins us from the Rand studio. Bruce, welcome.


YOUNG: So start with the al-Qaida in Iraq group, or the group that used to be called al-Qaida in Iraq. What is its new name and what does that mean?

HOFFMAN: Well, al-Qaida in Iraq still exists in Iraq, and that's what it's called. However, in Syria it's rebranded itself and called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, thus claiming authority to extend Sharia law from, in their view, hopefully Iraq, across the Levant to the Mediterranean and thereby enabling them to more effectively compete with Jabhat al-Nusra, the stand-alone al-Qaida entity in Syria.

YOUNG: And Jabhat al-Nusra, you say its leader is a Syrian, but he at one time had fought with al-Qaida in Iraq.

HOFFMAN: That's exactly right, and then drifted back to Syria, assumed leadership of this group that actually, I would say, al-Qaida in Iraq had a large role in creating Jabhat al-Nusra. The problem is over the past year they've become somewhat fierce competitors. I often think a little bit too much is made of, well, what's called the split. It's not really a split in these al-Qaida entities. I would liken it more to the rivalry between the Army and the Navy in the United States.

YOUNG: Well...

HOFFMAN: But they are competing with one another.

YOUNG: I was going to say, except the Army and the Navy don't behead people on the other side. And if I'm reading this correctly...

HOFFMAN: Well...

YOUNG: ...they have actually fought each other in Syria.

HOFFMAN: In a limited fashion. They're actually cooperating fairly extensively. And the beheadings have been largely of people that they mutually consider their enemies. I think what's significant is just in the past week, both groups cooperated in the successful seizure of a Syrian air force base outside of Aleppo. So even though there is this rivalry, they still understand that they're part of the overall al-Qaida umbrella. Zawahiri, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, has prevailed upon them to put aside their differences and to cooperate. And it seems that that's what they're doing.

YOUNG: So you have two al-Qaida affiliated groups in Syria, one Syrian-born but trained in Iraq by fighting there, the other, as you say, morphed from Iraq over to Syria. What does it mean to whatever is left of the rebel groups that were part of the popular uprising in the beginning?

HOFFMAN: Well, the Free Syrian Army and the other moderates who the United States and other countries would prefer to see prevail are still active. But unfortunately the jihadi groups bring with them to the table battle-hardened combat experience. These are people that fought for many years in Iraq against the United States Army and the Marines that were able to survive despite having - sustained tremendous punishment, and therefore on the whole proving to be more capable, one could argue more desperate because they engaged in suicide attacks than the Free Syrian Army and the various other militia forces active there and there. Unfortunately, their prowess in battle is enabling them to acquire tremendous credibility.

What's worrisome in that context is that al-Qaida in Iraq were in essence a bunch of thugs. I mean just as you described, I mean they beheaded Iraqis. They alienated the population. What I find very troubling is both Jabhat al-Nusra and also the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant seemed to have learned those lessons from Iraq and now are much more actively engaged in what one can only call public relations, giving out toys, distributing bread and food, acting much more in a social welfare capacity than we've ever seen any al-Qaida entity do so in the past.

YOUNG: Well, I have to say, in reading a Washington Post piece, expanding on your thinking, I never thought I'd see the word Teletubbies in the same sentence as al-Qaida. But apparently the al-Qaida members from Iraq are handing out Teletubbies to kids in Syria.

HOFFMAN: I mean it's completely cynical, but nonetheless they're smart enough now to recognize that they have to depict themselves in that manner to gain the popular support that they were never able to acquire in Iraq.

YOUNG: Well, so what does this mean for Syria going forward? It sounds like one thing it does mean is that President Assad can claim to be right.

HOFFMAN: Yes, he can claim to be right, unfortunately. But the uprising in Syria was not caused by - and was not started by al-Qaida. All terrorist groups everywhere, in essence, are opportunists. They seek opportunities to intervene where they can gain some traction.

HOFFMAN: In the vacuum that's being created in Syria where there is something of a stalemate, the al-Qaida affiliates have been able to create a presence that, at least in the eyes of many Syrians, they hope can eventually tip the battle in their favor against the Assad regime and overthrow it.

YOUNG: But then they'll be under the thumb of al-Qaida. And we're hearing from reporters like Deborah Amos, NPR's Deborah Amos, that many of the original members of the popular uprising, the leaders, have left the country. So if Assad is overthrown, it will be by al-Qaida.

HOFFMAN: Well, al-Qaida will certainly claim credit. Even if they don't provide the final push, they're certainly going to elbow themselves into the limelight, and it is extremely dangerous. You see al-Qaida being able to put the forces on the ground that have the potential to change the stalemate. And that's why the reports in recent days of Sudanese weapons coming to Syria are also very worrisome because it's not just small arms, but it's sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons and missiles, the FN-6 in particular, which also, again, can sort of change the constellation of forces on the battlefield.

Also, in recent months, Syria has just become increasingly a magnet for foreign fighters, much in the same way that Afghanistan was 30 years ago, although the big difference is Syria is not some land-locked country isolated in the middle of South Asia. Syria is basically the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East. It's strategically situated along the Mediterranean. It's a highly consequential country where repercussions from what occurs in Syria will inevitably affect all of its neighbors: Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Iraq, of course.

YOUNG: Well, what do you think this all means for U.S. involvement in Syria? Do you think it will force the U.S. and its allies to take a more active role, you know, maybe even boots on the ground?

HOFFMAN: Well, I think boots on the ground is extremely unlikely. The problem that, I think, the U.S. and its allies face is the stalemate eventually will be broken and the Assad regime, if it doesn't fall, is certainly going to govern increasingly smaller parts of Syria. And this, unfortunately, creates the opportunity for al-Qaida to establish exactly as the pretentions of the Iraqi variant or an Islamic state run by them in at least parts of Syria.

YOUNG: Bruce Hoffman, director of Security Studies at Georgetown University, senior fellow at the Rand Corporation with the dispiriting look at the current situation in Syria. Bruce, thank you.


Quick update now on our top story of the day. President Obama has condemned the Egyptian government's violent crackdown and canceled an annual joint military exercise between the U.S. and Egypt. The interim Egyptian government has authorized police to use deadly force to protect themselves and key buildings from Egyptians angry over the removal of President Mohamed Morsi. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.