Will Al-Qaeda Thrive in the Syrian Civil War?

In the past 11 months, Syrians have witnessed rapidly-escalating violence, a death toll now estimated at 7,300 and a conflict composed of several dimensions that include violence between the government and armed opposition, a sectarian conflict, and innocent civilians that are caught in the crossfire. Now the conflict has reached a dire stage where one must pose the question: is Al-Qaeda thriving as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s newest enemy?

Considering the expanding militarization of the opposition, Syria’s sensitive geographical location and the slow process of implementing democracy that follows overthrowing an autocratic regime, the best course of action in Syria now – unlike fellow Arab states – is not for Assad to step down just yet, but rather for him to follow up on recent promises to hold a referendum to eradicate the single-party system that has prevailed since 1963, and to follow them with democratic elections.

The protests against Assad’s 11-year single party rule began March of 2011 and were quickly met with a brutally heavy-handed response from the government. The violence displayed by the government has continued to worsen as the opposition itself militarized. With this change of events, it became clear that unlike the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and several other Arab states, where the violent aggressors and the innocent victims were easy to distinguish, the situation in Syria has quickly evolved to one where the ruthless bloodshed is being exercised by both sides.

 

The contribution of multiple sides to the situation in Syria today was proven further by the only observing body that was allowed in Syria: the Arab League. Though plagued with their own set of controversies that could arguably eliminate any legitimacy from their report, the Arab League stated in their final monitor’s report that, in addition to running into crowds in the thousands that supported Assad’s government, they also witnessed, on numerous occasions, violence that was initiated and perpetuated by armed groups that are not linked to the government.

As for Al-Qaeda activity in Syria, their unnoticed entry into the country could be traced back to the very same network that enabled Al-Qaeda to infiltrate it’s weaponry and activity from Syria into Iraq in the height of the Iraqi insurgency, following the 2003 U.S. occupation. The increasingly volatile situation in Syria combined with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq means Al-Qaeda now has new grounds for their activity. In addition, first suicide bomb that was set off in Syria since the protests began occurred on December 23, a few days after the Arab League and the Syrian government agreed to begin the Observers Mission. The attack aroused suspicion of Al-Qaeda involvement due to the timing and form of attack.

Further perpetuating concerns of Al-Qaeda’s involvement in Syria’s disintegrating situation is the fact that the Syrian government and the opposition both have access to a slew of weaponry, and with a violent and expanding opposition, and an increase of army defects, weapon availability and exchange will be at its highest.

To analyze the situation in Syria on a larger scale, it is important to note that Syria is located in an incredibly sensitive region, where the neighboring countries consist of the conflicted Lebanon, the occupied Palestine, the aggressive Israel, and the destabilized Iraq. If Assad were to be forced out of the government, it is highly likely that the chaos that would ensue due to a lack of governance will affect the region immediately and in a way that cannot be controlled. In addition, as the governments of Libya and Egypt are now proving, implementing a thorough and organized system of democracy in a state that has been ruled by an autocratic regime for decades is a long and complex process that requires cooperation and transparency on all levels of the government.

The situation in Syria is not a desirable one; Syrians have clearly displayed that Assad’s single party rule is no longer accepted or desired, but the situation in Syria is now too violent and uncontrolled to have Assad step down. Assad must follow up on his recent promises to hold a referendum to eradicate Syria’s single-party system and to follow them with democratic elections. Through committing to these promises, Assad will to prove to his supporters, his opposition and to the international community that he is devoted to resolving the conflict and stopping the violence that has caused a frighteningly uncontainable conflict.

Photo Credit: UltraNoticious


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Selma Al-Samarrai

Recent McMaster University graduate with an Honours degree in Political Science and a minor in Psychology. Previous experiences include a 2-year employment as the Senior News Editor for McMaster's weekly student newspaper, The Silhouette and a writer for a technology blog. Interests include International Relations, Middle Eastern affairs and women's rights.

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