On jihadists and Syria

There may very well be jihadists who swear allegiance to al-Qaeda in Syria, but I do not like the way this NYT story starts:

CAIRO — It is the sort of image that has become a staple of the Syrian revolution, a video of masked men calling themselves the Free Syrian Army and brandishing AK-47s — with one unsettling difference. In the background hang two flags of Al Qaeda, white Arabic writing on a black field.

“We are now forming suicide cells to make jihad in the name of God,” said a speaker in the video using the classical Arabic favored by Al Qaeda.

The video, posted on YouTube, is one more bit of evidence that Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists are doing their best to hijack the Syrian revolution, with a growing although still limited success that has American intelligence officials publicly concerned, and Iraqi officials next door openly alarmed.

The black flag is not al-Qaeda's own — it is the historical flag of Jihad and has a long tradition in Islamic history (Update: Will McCants informs me this is the al-Qaeda version of the black flag, in use by various jihadist groups since the 1990s) . Likewise, classical Arabic is not just favored by al-Qaeda — it's also favored by many television stations and indeed books in the Arab world. This gives the worst possible impression of the groups, while bizarrely taking the focus off the most worrying aspect of what's being described: the adoption of suicide bombings as a tactic (which, of course, is not unique to jihadists). So I'm not sure from what is being described here what evidence there is to link al-Qaeda to these Syrian fighters — I would expect evidence that the US government takes seriously to include something like the presence of a known al-Qaeda member in the cell, not some basic visual cues.

The NYT article has something much more interesting in this quote:

Iraqi officials said the extremists operating in Syria are in many cases the very same militants striking across their country. “We are 100 percent sure from security coordination with Syrian authorities that the wanted names that we have are the same wanted names that the Syrian authorities have, especially within the last three months,” Izzat al-Shahbandar — a close aide to the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki — said in an interview on Tuesday. “Al Qaeda that is operating in Iraq is the same as that which is operating in Syria,” he said.

One Qaeda operative, a 56-year-old known as Abu Thuha who lives in the Hawija district near Kirkuk in Iraq, spoke to an Iraqi reporter for The New York Times on Tuesday. “We have experience now fighting the Americans, and more experience now with the Syrian revolution,” he said. “Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine.”

Assuming this is true (and it sounds plausible enough) it seems that the jihadists in Syria could in part be the same ones as those in Iraq. Which may simply mean that they have moved over, not that there are new jihadists in Syria. Because not all of the foreign fighters who come to Syria should necessarily be considered members of al-Qaeda (even in regional intelligence services will no doubt treat them as such, as this Egyptian paramedic's experience suggests) — just like all those Europeans who volunteered to fight in the Spanish civil war were not necessarily communists.

Some have taken the hyping of the al-Qaeda in Syria to new heights — particularly among those opposed to intervention in Syria, and of course among supporters of the Assad regime. (Update: more at Ibn Kafka's on the stupid left on Syria) Are there jihadists in Syria? No doubt. But to talk of the opposition as mostly jihadist seems completely ridiculous, and out of touch with the largely localized nature of the Syrian insurgency (in that like Libya there seems to be many local militias driven by local reasons, even if there may be crossover with Islamists including jihadists) and the competing opposition leaderships that have established themselves abroad. The reporting coming out of Syria itself is pretty clear on the diversity of the Syrian rebellion, even if it has a strong Sunni Muslim component. One suspects the focus on the jihadists stems from the reality that it's far easier to monitor the chest-thumping of jihadi websites than to do actual reporting in Syria.

Update 3: Here's another story on al-Qaeda in Syria by the Guardian pointed out to me as a good example of reporting on the jihadist phenomenon.

But these were not average members of the Free Syrian Army. Abu Khuder and his men fight for al-Qaida. They call themselves the ghuraba'a, or "strangers", after a famous jihadi poem celebrating Osama bin Laden's time with his followers in the Afghan mountains, and they are one of a number of jihadi organisations establishing a foothold in the east of the country now that the conflict in Syria has stretched well into its second bloody year.

They try to hide their presence. "Some people are worried about carrying the [black] flags," said Abu Khuder. "They fear America will come and fight us. So we fight in secret. Why give Bashar and the west a pretext?" But their existence is common knowledge in Mohassen. Even passers-by joke with the men about car bombs and IEDs.

My question remains the same: to what extent do these people dominate the rebels in Syria? There is no indication of that. And I think their presence will become an argument to arm others so that they don't dominate  — no doubt the likes of Manaf Tlass will be making that case. 

And here's a tweet-lecture on jihadis in Syria by Iyad Baghdadi.

A few Syria links:

Click to embiggen

DOHA/DUBAI (Reuters) - Turkey has set up a secret base with allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar to direct vital military and communications aid to Syria's rebels from a city near the border, Gulf sources have told Reuters.

News of the clandestine Middle East-run "nerve centre" working to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad underlines the extent to which Western powers - who played a key role in unseating Muammar Gaddafi in Libya - have avoided military involvement so far in Syria.

"It's the Turks who are militarily controlling it. Turkey is the main co-ordinator/facilitator. Think of a triangle, with Turkey at the top and Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the bottom," said a Doha-based source.

"The Americans are very hands-off on this. U.S. intel(ligence) are working through middlemen. Middlemen are controlling access to weapons and routes."

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.