Al-Qaeda’s Designs For Syria
January 16, 2013
A massive blast rocked Syria’s Aleppo University on Tuesday, blowing the walls off dormitory rooms and killing at least 87 people with the death toll expected to rise. The explosion hit the campus as students were in the middle of taking exams.
Government institutions within Aleppo have been a target in the past, because Aleppo is the country’s largest city and it has been Syria’s main commercial hub. However, the targeting of students marks a major escalation in Syria’s civil war. The government and the rebel opposition have blamed each other for the university bombing, and it is easy to see why. The target of attack as well as the scale of destruction is inconsistent with the rebel’s modus operandi or the rockets they are known to possess. The bombing shows all the hallmarks of al Qaeda.
The ongoing threat of terrorism by al Qaeda presents a different pattern from what has been seen in the past. Leadership of the network appears to have evolved from a centralized body to now being a loose aggregation of groups. One reason for this new development is that al Qaeda relies heavily on geographical safe havens. These are areas of the world where al Qaeda has the ability to set up training camps and meeting places without fear of interference or interruption. The chaos and confusion that has erupted around Syria’s civil war has created one of those safe havens.
Jabhat al Nusra is a member of al Qaeda’s loose aggregation of groups, and it has claimed responsibility for attacks on Syrian government targets in the past. In my opinion, this group is a prime suspect for the university bombing, but it may be reticent to take responsibility for fear of reprisals from other rebel groups.
As I’ve said in the past, al Qaeda’s financial and logistical problems have forced the network to strengthen its alliances with other groups such as the various Taliban franchises in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban, Balochi and Punjabi extremists, Saudi dissidents, Iraqi insurgents, unaffiliated groups who profit from drug smuggling, and now Syrian rebel forces. This dependence on alliances has caused the network to become as close operationally with outside groups as it has ever been. With these new ties, al Qaeda has also been able to bond ideologically with other groups like never before. This adds a whole new dimension to the insurgencies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and a troubling new dynamic to Syria’s civil war.
The latest violence in Syria sees Jabhat al Nusra and other al Qaeda affiliated groups attacking soft targets in the larger cities. For al Qaeda, these methods are meant to establish a two-pronged goal. The organization is intent on making it more difficult for the weakened Shi’a led government of Syria to physically challenge al Qaeda and the network’s alliance with Sunni groups; more importantly, a weakened Syria could further destabilize the region and possibly further embroil the the United States in regional conflicts.
Al Qaeda’s goal remains the same. It aims to “provoke and bait” the United States into “bleeding wars” throughout the Islamic world.
Abu Musab al Zarqawi masterminded and oversaw the strategy that al Qaeda originally used to destabilize Iraq. Zarqawi focused on the fault line in Iraqi society – the divide between Sunnis and Shi’a – with the intention to cause civil war. The attacks he launched against the Shi’a became a kind of roadmap for wreaking controlled havoc. He did this with the intention of keeping the United States bogged down in conflicts with Muslim fighters; however, it must be noted that al Qaeda has always seen its ability to defend and preserve Sunni norms and law at the expense of Shi’a political power as a benefit to its war on the West.
I believe that if Syria’s government does eventually fall, al Qaeda will then initiate a second Syrian civil war among the Sunni/Shi’a divide in order to bait the United States to intercede. If a second civil war did occur, the United States would move to keep Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons out of the wrong hands. They could play right into al Qaeda’s trap.
There are possibly hundreds of opposition rebel groups within Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the incumbency for the opposition and would move to form a new government should President Bashar al-Assad’s government fall. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are divergent ethnic groups that are antagonistic and even violent towards one another. Their only unifying factor is that they oppose Assad. Al Qaeda will surely exploit this situation.
Syria’s civil war is only one round in a dangerous ongoing game of chess that al Qaeda is playing with the United States.
Many of the al Qaeda fighters in Syria came from Iraq, and they promote a jihadist vision that is global in scope, intolerant of other Sunni doctrines, and fanatically anti-Shi’a. Al Qaeda’s main grievance with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. Syria’s population is over 70% Sunni, yet the country is run by minority Shi’ites who make up only around 12% of the population. Al Qaeda wants to change that, and they are building and expanding training camps in pockets of Syria where sympathetic Sunnis hold power.
Like all bombings associated with al Qaeda, the bombing at Aleppo University was designed to sow fear and induce economic damage. Syria’s state-run SANA news agency has quoted the minister of higher education, Mahmoud Mualla, as saying that Assad has ordered the reconstruction of Aleppo University “with the utmost speed.”