Last week, al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the official merger of his affiliate and the Syrian based Jabhat al Nusra into a single organization.

This is a very important move for al Qaeda which has been degraded over the last few years after suffering defeat after defeat.

Syrian rebels in training exercisesAl Qaeda would love nothing more than to find refuge in Syria as it once did in Afghanistan. The continuing internecine strife between various Syrian rebel factions along with an increasing lawlessness (following the degradation of the Syrian state) has enabled the growing and well-disciplined Jabhat al Nusra to expand their control over territory in Syria.

United States General James Clapper, the director of U.S. National Intelligence, stated in testimony on Capitol Hill last week that if and when Assad falls there will be as much as a year-and-a-half of continued civil unrest in Syria. This is because it will take that long for a new government to be consolidated due to infighting between former allies and various mujahideen groups within the opposition. 

There are possibly hundreds of opposition groups inside Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the leader of the opposition. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are  divergent ethnic groups that are often antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

A Jabhat al Nusra-controlled Syria—with previously established connections between al Qaeda and other Jihadi affiliated groups, administered with a shared militancy, and isolated from Western political influence and military power—would provide a perfect location for al Qaeda to relocate its headquarters. Furthermore, Syria would be better positioned to rebuff Western intervention than Afghanistan was with its enormous stockpile of chemical weapons.

In July of last year, al Baghdadi released an audiotape where he warned the Syrian rebels “not to accept any rule or constitution but God’s rule and Shariah (Islamic law). Otherwise, you will lose your blessed revolution.”

The formal pact between al Qaeda’s Iraqi faction and Jabhat al Nusra could be the nail in the coffin for possible U.S. intervention in Syria. The announcement gives U.S. politicians (including President Barack Obama) the political cover needed to deny military action in Syria and to continue a strategy of diplomacy to oust the Syrian regime. However, a lack of U.S. support may drive the Syrian opposition to strengthen ties with al Qaeda.

As long as the rebels lack sufficient weapons, they will be forced to turn to those groups that are willing to provide them with arms. And right now those groups are the Jihadi affiliated groups such as al Qaeda. Arming the Syrian opposition could provide them with the opportunity to be independent of al Qaeda; however, there is the real danger that arming the opposition will funnel weapons into terrorist hands. 

The ongoing threat of terrorism by al Qaeda presents a different pattern from what has been seen in the past. Leadership of the network has evolved from a centralized body to a loose aggregation of groups. Plots are now emanating from African countries such as Yemen whereas before they exclusively emerged out of Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq. 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. A safe haven like the one they are attempting to create within Syria.

Al Baghdadi became the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq after Abu Omar al Baghdadi, who was not related, and Abu Ayyub al Masri were killed on April 18, 2010 by a joint team of U.S. and Iraqi troops. 

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The United States has stated that American intervention in Syria is precipitated upon Syria’s use of chemical weapons. This is the ‘red line’ that U.S. President Barack Obama has drawn around the Syrian civil war.

Now there are rumors that last week the Syrian government used chemical weapons on a small scale against some rebel groups. If true, this could be a way for Syria to test this ‘red line’ position. However, I’ve heard from several sources that this alleged use of chemical weapons could be a case of definition mischaracterization.

Most now believe that the Syrian government used tear gas to control a small pocket of insurgents. I find this to be a credible explanation, because no one is alleging that sarin, sulfur mustard, or any other kind of device considered a chemical weapon among Western governments was used. Regardless, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is escalating attacks against his own people, and Assad has shown that he is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power.

Bashar al-Assad addresses supporters in Damascus

Hezbollah has been an instrument of the Syrian government. Syria has helped to fund and train Hezbollah militants since the group’s inception, and Syria has used Hezbollah as its primary device to attack Israel. The United States is using Israel’s security as a high watermark for further American intervention in the region.

The United States would prefer to put the Middle East behind it. The U.S. has shifted its focus to Asia. China’s growing influence and the increasing regional instability from a nuclear armed North Korea have sapped resources away from the Middle East and North Africa. 

Syria has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world. The prospect of radical Islamist groups getting their hands on some of these weapons is the gravest fear that the U.S. intelligence community has for Mid-East terrorists. But, the shadow of the Iraq war hangs over America’s actions in Syria. The Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene in Syria has been colored by the strategic mistakes of the early Iraq War and the cost the war had to American blood and treasure. The way the Iraq War was launched and the sectarian violence that followed has informed how President Obama approaches the situation in Syria. Mr. Obama really doesn’t want to get involved in the Syrian conflict. But the situation in Syria is not comparable to Iraq before the Iraq War.You can make a much more credible case for intervention now in Syria than you could before in the case of Iraq.

However, more American troops in the region would surely galvanize Islamists not already involved in the Syrian conflict, and I can envision a myriad of scenarios where you could have thousands of Jihadi terrorists flooding into Syria to fight the Americans. This could further destabilize Syria and give even more opportunities for chemical weapons to fall into the wrong hands. So there are strong arguments for why the U.S. should stay out of the Syrian conflict. Nevertheless, if the United States is to remain credible, Mr. Obama will have to stay firm to the ‘red line’ he has drawn around Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

The first assassination in post-revolutionary Tunisia occurred today. Chokri Belaid, a lawyer and Tunisian opposition leader, had been critical of both the Islamist-led government and of the violence perpetrated by radical Muslim Salafist groups. He was was gunned down as he left his home.

Protests in the North African nation originally ignited the Arab Spring, and it has since been seen as a model for the Arab world’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. The killing of Belaid is likely to increase societal tensions, and Tunisia’s Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouch called the assassination a “terrorist act.” Belaid was shot point-blank several times.

Belaid was a high profile politician who had been particularly outspoken against groups affiliated with Tunisia’s largest political party, the Ennahda Party, that is infamous for seeking out remnants of the old dictatorship regime. The Ennahda is an Islamist party that was originally inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It is the most well-organized party in Tunisia, and it has politically outdistanced all of its more secular competitors.

Tunisia

Belaid was a member of a leftist alliance of parties known as the Popular Front. Islamist militants had disrupted a rally that Belaid had led over the weekend. The rally was part of a string of political meetings that have been disrupted by gangs loyal to Ennahda.

French President Francois Hollande has condemned the killing by saying, “This murder deprives Tunisia of one of its most courageous and free voices.”

Tunisia’s Islamist-led government is seen as being too moderate by that country’s more radical elements. Salafist groups have labeled the government as an oppressor for its refusal to release some 900 militants arrested for various acts of violence. Two of those detainees have since died in their cells after hunger strikes.

This has put Tunisia’s Islamist leaders in a problematic position. To the secular elite, the government is too indulgent regarding Salafist groups; yet, the Salafis accuse the government of being too indulgent regarding the secularists. Salafis have thus accused the Islamist-led government of selling out the purest form of Islam. It is a fine line that Tunisia’s leaders are currently walking.

The most radical of the Salafist gangs have attacked cultural events and shrines they consider un-Islamic. Carrying sticks and swords, they have ransacked stores selling alcohol and fought with the police. Salafist militants are also accused of leading the attack last year on the American school in Tunis as well as the U.S. Embassy attack that killed United States Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

The Salafi movement is typically spread through schools run by religious teachers who have little knowledge of or appreciation for traditional Islam. The chief task of these teachers is to promote a jihadist vision that is 1) global in scope, 2) intolerant of competing with other Sunni doctrines, and 3) fanatically anti-Shi’a. A main goal of these Salafist schools has been having their pupils spread this form of Islam world-wide. Originating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Salafist movement has made Tunisia one of its latest cultural battlegrounds.

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