A renamed version of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) now known as the Islamic State of Iraq is gaining ground in Syria. It is establishing itself in the northern and northeastern parts of the country. With the Syrian opposition extremely divided, Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are being able to find breathing space and establish themselves in various territories across Syria. Islamic extremist groups have been by far the most successful during encountering al-Assad's forces. As such groups gain a foothold in the civil war, a post-al-Assad future (should his regime fall) could well see a Syria rampant with Islamic extremism and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups.
Recently attempts are being made to unite the Syrian rebels. The Syrian opposition in total consists of approximately nine to eleven different groups. These groups do not agree on religious ideology, a political framework, or a coordinated plan to fight the government, and most importantly have different and divergent views regarding a post-al-Assad Syria. Put simply, a mutual hostility to the al-Assad regime is all that these groups have in common. It is important to realize that with such fundamental differences in place, especially in matters of ideology and religion, it would be naïve to expect a united Syrian opposition that actually functions as a single coordinated unit anytime soon.
Out of these divided groups, the Al-Qaeda affiliated groups and other Islamic extremist groups seem to be enjoying the most success against government forces. The Islamic State of Iraq group with its radical ideology and tactics such as kidnappings and beheadings has stamped its identity on the communities in which it is present, including, crucially, areas surrounding the main border crossings with Turkey. Similarly, Jabhat Al-Nusra, another prominent opposition group which openly declared its allegiance to Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda, is not only faring well in the fight against rime forces but is also gaining recruits from the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
These groups have managed to establish a number of no-go areas in the northern and north eastern parts of the country. Civilian activists, rival rebel commanders and Westerners, including more than a dozen journalists and relief workers, have been assassinated or abducted in recent months in areas where the Islamic State has a presence. Most of the cases are being kept quiet for fear of jeopardizing the victims’ release.
It is also extremely important to take note of the fact that if Al-Qaeda manages to establish itself in the area they will be in a much better geostrategic position that they were in Iraq. Syria's location — the country shares borders with Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon — gives Al-Qaeda a foothold in the heart of the Middle East, drastically altering the status quo geostrategic and geopolitical setting of the region.
Unlike in Iraq, in Syria the Al-Qaeda affiliated groups and other militant Islamic groups do not have U.S. forces hunting them down. As the Syrian civil war is progressing, dangerous groups are successfully establishing their control over parts of the country and also simultaneously taking the lead in fighting al-Assad's forces. Such a scenario that allows for the ascent of such groups is not only bad for Syria but can prove to be an extremely destabilizing force for the region as well.