Al-Qaeda in Syria is a Serious Threat — What Can the U.S. Do?

As talks progress with Russia about the diplomatic solution that could rid the Assad regime of its chemical weapons, debates on various forms of possible U.S. intervention in Syria continue. While the conversation seems to be largely focused on the issue of chemical weapons at the moment, an integral part of the conflict that directly concerns U.S. national security interests cannot and should not be disregarded: Al-Qaeda and the rise of radical Islam in the Syrian battleground.

Many opponents and promoters of diplomatic or military intervention have been righteously directing their attentions on the rebels — who they are and what they want to make of Syria. Experts have pointed out the radical Islamist actors in the Syrian opposition, especially those affiliated with Al-Qaeda and its so-called Syrian wing, Jabat al Nusra. Fear is on the rise, especially for many Americans, as the reality sets in that many of the opposition forces have not-so-virtuous intentions for the future of Syria after all. Although the truth is that the rebel forces lie on a wide spectrum of ideology and intention, leaving the opposition as a whole as utterly complex and impossible to simplify, these fears come with good reason.

Indeed, Jabat al Nusra’s presence has been growing in Syria as the group advances in arms capability and continuously attracts supporters from outside the country. With the appealing struggle of the opposition, Syria has essentially become a hub for international terrorists and jihadists, coming from all over the region to unite for a “noble” cause. This already seems to be happening. "Syria is drawing thousands of radical jihadist activists from the area and the world, who are basing themselves in the country, not only to topple al-Assad, but also to promote the vision of a religious state,” said Gen. Aviv Kochavi of Israel.

As the war continues to drag on, it inevitably causes more and more Syrians to arm themselves and take to the battleground. Those joining the battle for various reasons are much more likely to radicalize on the battleground. In fact, according to researchers, shifts towards Islamism and extremism even within the Free Syrian Army, a portion of the opposition that has thus far been most favorable to support for the West, have been seen as the crisis evolved in the past few years.

In his Jihad 2020: Assessing Al Qaida’s 20-Year Pplan, Aaron Zelin, researcher on jihadist groups, summarizes the organization’s predictions and assessments of events in the Middle East. Regarding the advantages the Syrian crisis has brought to Al-Qaeda’s ultimate objectives, he writes that “in war zones like Syria, it has tried to garner support through the provision of social services. It has also tried to avoid alienating the Sunni population with excessive violence, instead focusing its target selection on military and security forces as well as non-Sunni Muslims. By 2013 the global jihadi movement had opened up a front in Syria, gaining a logistical base to facilitate operations in southern Turkey.” After 2013, he explains that Al-Qaeda expects the establishment of an Islamic state amidst the declining influence of the West in the region. He adds, “U.S. and Western influence in the region has indeed been diminished, as illustrated by Washington’s recent impotence to shape events in Egypt and Syria.”

The so-called red line for intervention in Syria has revolved around the issue of chemical weapons and the Assad regime. But in terms of U.S. national security interests, perhaps the red line should have been the creation of a haven for anti-Western terrorism and extremism — which was crossed much earlier in the crisis. Regardless of the outcome of the chemical weapons talks with Russia and Assad, this threat to U.S. national security will continue in Syria as the civil war drags on, most likely worsening by the day. Today the primary enemy of these radical Islamist and jihadist groups may be the Assad regime, but this priority is going to shift towards other enemies, namely the U.S. and the West, as the crisis unfolds.

We may not like it — and most of us really, really don’t — but we cannot ignore the reality: External powers, such as Iran, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have already been keen to export their influences to Syria in order to shape the future of the country according to their various interests. After two and a half years of civil war, at this point in the game we need to accept that Syria’s fate will be determined not by the regime and the opposition, but rather by any or all of these external forces. So the question now is, Will there be a role for the U.S.? And if not, will the U.S. be ready for the potential consequences for its national security?

Time is ticking and the situation deteriorates by the day. Syria is already very likely to end up another haven for anti-American radicalism in the future. This reality becomes closer and clearer as the U.S. stalls on action. Intervention may not, and probably will not, eliminate these factors completely. But certainly, it could influence of the situation in a relatively more favorable direction for the U.S., the West, and those in the Middle East hoping for a moderate Syria in their neighborhood. As Jeffrey White puts it, “Now may not be the best time to intervene, but there may not be a better time”. 

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Merve Tahiroglu

Merve Tahiroglu is a Duke University graduate with a degree in International Relations. She is currently interning at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She is from Istanbul, Turkey - born and raised.

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