An unwanted guest
The regime and its allies claim that Al-Qaeda has infiltrated Syria, but the opposition says the number of jihadists in the country remains negligible, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
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Free Syrian Army fighters announce the foundation of their new group to be based in Aleppo (photo: Reuters)|
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the UN General Assembly a few days ago that "extremist groups, including Al-Qaeda, are active in Syria and are carrying out terrorist operations against the population and civilian infrastructure." He went on to condemn all forms of violence in the country irrespective of their perpetrators and urged the Syrian regime and opposition to sit down at the negotiating table.
Lavrov added that failure to implement the decisions of the Geneva Conference on Syria would push the country "to the brink of brother fighting brother and the continued militarisation of the crisis." He blamed international players for the failed implementation of the Geneva decisions, but did not blame the Syrian regime.
Lavrov's claim that there are large numbers of Al-Qaeda fighters in Syria is identical to claims made by the Syria regime, but neither has produced any tangible evidence to support the claim that Al-Qaeda is now fighting alongside the armed opposition.
The opposition vehemently denies the claims.
Over recent weeks, warnings have escalated about an Al-Qaeda presence in Syria, some media reporting that there are 800 non-Syrian fighters in Aleppo alone. There have also been reports of the emergence of international jihadist groups in northern Syria and Damascus.
However, opposition activists say that the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been taking steps to allow these extremist groups to replace the revolutionary forces, adding that the regular army has been withdrawing from some rural areas in order to make way for such groups.
The idea is that the army will then be able to use their presence as a pretext for heavy artillery bombing.
Talk of a jihadist or Salafist presence in Syria is nothing new, but there have been varying claims regarding their numbers or influence. The Syrian opposition says that media reports about Arab jihadists in Syria are exaggerated and that these fighters, described as individuals, do not amount to an influential force.
They are estimated at between 500 and 1,500 fighters in total, about 0.5 to 1.5 per cent of the estimated opposition fighters.
The Syrian opposition and many countries supporting the uprising against the Al-Assad regime say that since the regime has failed to crush the uprising it is now claiming that Al-Qaeda has entered the country in a bid to convince international opinion that it is fighting a war on terror, justifying its military crackdown.
The regime claims that the majority of fighters in Syria are not Syrian and that more than 5,000 jihadists are present in the country, most of them belonging to Al-Qaeda and being described as "armed terrorist gangs".
It has arrested many Arab fighters in different parts of Syria, the regime says.
However, according to Ayman Abdel-Nour, editor of the website "We are all Partners", the regime "has released a large number of members of fanatical Islamist and jihadist groups who were behind bars. It is also manipulating groups associated with Al-Qaeda ideology in Syria and Lebanon, most of them infiltrated by Syrian security agencies. It has focused on persecuting Syrian Christians in order to gain the sympathy of the West and pretend that Al-Qaeda is present in Syria."
In response to such moves, the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), composed of soldiers who have defected from the regular army, has denied accusations that it is linked to Al-Qaeda and is carrying out moves against Syrian Christians.
According to the FSA, there are many Christians among its formations and Syrian Christians in any case in the main support its goals. FSA fighters evacuated Christian journalists from Homs in February, it said.
Fawaz Tallu, a Syrian opposition activist close to the revolutionary fighters, denied that there was a large number of jihadists or extremist foreign fighters in Syria.
"Talk of foreigners in Syria fighting alongside the revolutionaries, especially in the north, is untrue," Tallu told Al-Ahram Weekly. "There have been just a few media reports to this effect, while thousands of others have denied it. Even if they could be verified, the presence of jihadist or foreigners in Syria is not a real phenomenon. We are talking about individual cases with no political or military significance."
"The Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have been propagating the notion that there are foreign and Al-Qaeda fighters in Syria in an attempt to suggest that the regime is fighting terrorism and to support its lie that the alternative to the current regime is the rule of a Sunni majority with a terrorist ideology."
"The regime claims that its battle is against fundamentalist Sunni terrorism and extremism," but this is untrue, Tallu said.
Over the past year, the Syrian government has accused the West of conspiring to install Islamists and Al-Qaeda forces throughout the Middle East and in Syria.
Such claims have been dismissed out of hand by the US, since the West has been keen on preventing the current turmoil in Syria from opening the door to extremist Islamist groups that would make it more difficult to contain the crisis.
Regime claims that the protestors are extremists and the enemies of the country's minorities and that Al-Qaeda and other terrorists are present in Syria have been used as a justification for its military crackdown.
In truth, the regime itself has had ties with extremist Islamist groups, especially after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and it has facilitated the passage of jihadists to neighbouring states when it has suited it to do so.
The majority of the revolutionary brigades assert that they are more than capable of putting an end to any Al-Qaeda elements in the country if these are present, since the brigades realise the danger they represent to Syria's future.
Any such fighters are isolated as soon as they are identified, opposition figures say.
Analysts have put forward various theories as to why jihadists may be present in Syria, including the regime's facilitating their entry in order to alarm the West or to justify an escalation in the violence against the revolutionaries.
The regime could also be trying to convince the international community to abandon the people of Syria.
"In fact, these groups will not be well received in Syria, either by civil society or the FSA," Tallu said. "The reasons are rooted in the culture and history of Syrian society, where the majority of Sunnis do not tolerate religious or sectarian extremism. This has allowed sectarian and ethnic minorities to thrive and freely to practice their beliefs and traditions."
The entry of extremist groups into Syria "will not be helpful to the revolutionaries. Instead, it would be a catastrophe," he said.
"The revolutionaries understand this, and they do not need the foreign fighters since there are hundreds of thousands of free Syrians willing to join the ranks of the FSA. What is stopping them is a lack of equipment and weapons, which the international community has been refusing to give the Syrian revolution."
Al-Qaeda "has not entered Syria through the gateway of the revolution," Tallu said. "The regime has tried to regulate its entry through intelligence plots and foreign or local fighters in the belief that it could then stamp it out whenever it pleases. But it will be the Syrian revolutionaries who will end this phenomenon because they will never embrace extremists."
The opposition says that the uprising against the Al-Assad regime is neither an armed rebellion nor a terrorist movement against the regime and state, but instead is a peaceful people's revolution that now has an armed dimension, forced on it by the regime's violence against civilians.
However, delays in coming to the aid of the protestors or in finding a solution to the crisis could open the door for such extremists to enter Syria. It will be the international community that will be responsible for this if it fails to act, causing the people of Syria to pay the price.
Part of the price will be paid in their struggle to topple the Al-Assad regime and establish a democratic state. The other part will be paid when extremists try to disrupt the revolution and derail it from its course.