Developments in the Syrian Crisis: The Rise of al-Qaeda and Retreat of the Regime

December 15, 2012 --

Middle East, Mike Godfrey, Syria

Image from Associated Press

The situation in Syria has been deteriorating rapidly in the past few weeks. New developments are of special concern for U.S. national security as we are getting a new view of Syria’s geopolitical reality. These developments include the rise in preeminence of al-Qaeda and its affiliates among the rebellion, concerns surrounding chemical weapons security, and recent regime activities that may indicate their short to mid-term goals.

U.S. policy makers this week have finally declared the jihadist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusrah, or the Victory Front, to be a terrorist organization. It has been known for some time that they are actually the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, under the leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq. From the State Department’s official announcement declaring them a foreign terrorist organization: “AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] emir Abu Du’a is in control of both AQI and al-Nusrah.” The U.S. declaration has been very unpopular among the Syrian rebels as al-Nusrah has been the sharp edge of the spear in the fight against Bashar al-Assad. Rebel groups, among them many secular brigades, have increasingly become integrated with al-Nusrah, thus making it extremely difficult now for many groups to receive support from foreign donors. This designation of al-Nusrah as an FTO should have been done months ago, before their integration in the rebellion was as firm as it is. Now it seems that it is too late to avoid al-Qaeda’s hijacking of the Syrian revolution as I discussed in October.

The group will face very little opposition from the military wing of the newly formed, Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, which is comprised of nearly two-thirds Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of Salafist groups. The new rebel command also excludes secular elements that have been critical in the fight against al-Assad. “It excludes the most senior officers who had defected from Assad’s military… Absent from the group is Colonel Riad al-Asaad, founder of the Syrian Free Army and Brigadier Mustafa al-Sheikh, a senior officer known for his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.” Even as al-Nusrah gains wide support from the rebels, they are consolidating all the disparate jihadist groups under one umbrella, the Mujahideen Shura Council based in Deir al-Zour. One intelligence official discussed the situation, saying that the jihadists are

“beginning to coalesce under a single command, and are following the lead of the Al Nusrah Front… Al Nusrah isn’t the only jihadist group operating in Syria, but as part of al Qaeda’s franchise it has access to its resources and expertise… Al Nusrah has the cachet to organize the local jihadists and integrate them… The influence of the jihadist groups in Syria, and their prowess on the battlefield, is being vastly underestimated… Al Qaeda, through the Nusrah Front, is working to unite these disparate jihadist groups, just as it did in Iraq.”

This union of the jihadist groups is a precursor step taken prior to forming an Islamic state, as it did in Iraq in 2006, and is attempting to do in Israel.

The uniting of the jihadist groups under al-Qaeda should be taken as a very real threat as recent gains by al-Nusrah and the rebels show that they are acquiring some very heavy weaponry. Their gains in the past few weeks include the capturing of the last Syrian army base near Aleppo, the Sheikh Suleiman base. According to defectors, the base housed “clandestine scientific research” that is rumored to be part of the chemical weapons program, although this is hard to verify. Other gains include acquiring surface-to-air missiles, tanks and other heavy weaponry, and even SCUD missiles. The al-Assad regime is not capable of securing dangerous weaponry from the rebels and al-Qaeda. Luckily there does appear to be ample attention given to the chemical weapons sites. U.S. defense contractors are already in Syria “trying to provide near real-time surveillance at all these sites.”

Additionally, Israeli commandos have been deployed into Syria, and rebels are being trained in Jordan and Turkey to handle chemical site management, but “the problem is that these rebels don’t have adequate equipment or training. Much could potentially go wrong.” If al-Qaeda was able to acquire just one of these chemical weapons sites, the potential damage could be catastrophic. The securing of these sites is critical to U.S. anti-terrorism goals.

As the rebels make significant gains in the north of the country, namely around Aleppo, and are closing in on Damascus, the al-Assad regime is becoming weaker and more desperate. Signs of the regime’s desperation include dropping naval mines on rebel positions, launching SCUDs, and even using Grad rockets. This escalation in the fighting comes as the elite in the regime have effectively forced al-Assad out of the captain’s chair, suggesting that the hawks in the regime now have free reign. The new regime is preparing to make a tactical retreat from Damascus to its fallback positions along the coast.

Significantly, units of the FSA operating north of Damascus appear to be limiting ambushes to southbound military traffic heading to the capital along the main highway, the sources say. Vehicles heading north are left unmolested, raising the possibility that the highway, which leads to Tartous, is being offered as an escape route for the regime to prevent a protracted and bloody last stand in Damascus.

The picture that is forming in Syria is that of the regime dominating the coastal areas of Tartous and Latakia, with the rebels controlling the rest of the country. This holdout in the coastal region will give the regime time to fortify themselves and work toward retaking lost territory. Once the rebels have essentially taken the Sunni portions of the country, it is likely that significant infighting will occur. One only needs to look at Libya to understand the kind of chaos that will occur in a country filled with many independent militias.

U.S. policy makers need to make plans to contain the long-term chaos that will envelope Syria. These plans need to include a robust effort to bolster Syria’s neighbors and pro-democracy militias within Syria, along with a strong, covert counter-terrorism campaign to eradicate al-Nusrah and its allies, similar to campaigns ongoing in Yemen. Additionally, Western forces should be well prepared to conduct swift chemical weapon-securing operations once the regime gives up or loses control of their chemical sites.

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