When Syrian army tanks stormed the southern town of Daraa last week, a military spokesman explained that the assault targeted “extremist terrorist groups.” The justification fell in line with the media campaign propagated by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime ever since countrywide protests began more than a month ago: behind the demonstrations are jihadists.
The reality is anything but. In fact, the popular uprising has followed on the wider revolt that has rocked the Middle East since January. In Syria, too, it has erupted, in large part spontaneously. What little coordination that has happened has come from human-rights activists and young, Internet-savvy professionals taking their cues from the astonishingly effective model on display in Egypt. The human face of it all, as evidenced by the left-leaning intellectuals and spokespersons talking to the outside world, has been secular and democratic. If there was indeed a jihadist element active in all this—as the regime claims—any role it has played has been nothing more than marginal. Even the former long-serving leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali al-Bayanouni, said last week in a television interview with Alhurra that “none of the opposition groups can claim ownership of this youthful revolution.”
That is hardly the message Assad’s Damascus wants the fence-sitters to see. His regime would like to face these protests with the same coalition—urban Sunni bourgeoisie, Christians, and heterodox Muslim sects—that his father cobbled together almost 30 years ago to face down a threatening Islamic fundamentalist insurgency. That showdown culminated with the smashing of the central city of Hama during a three-week battle in February 1982, leaving tens of thousands killed. Hafez Assad’s triumph brought on nearly three decades of stability.
It is ironic that the regime has worked assiduously to erase the battle over Hama from the country’s collective memory, as it would like nothing more than what happened there to be remembered now. Today, Bashar al-Assad would like to go to battle against the very same fundamentalist bogeymen his father fought back in the 1980s. Such a specter would sufficiently scare vested interests and confessional groups within the country, bringing them around to his side. And if the enemy were just an ideological shade away from Al Qaeda, the West would not intervene, but instead would let Damascus do its dirty work.
That’s not to say there aren’t Syrian jihadists. To the contrary, actually. In the years following Hama, successive generations of Syrian fundamentalists joined the jihad; they just did so abroad. Abu Musab al-Suri became Al Qaeda’s chief tactical theorist, bouncing around the globe before he was arrested in Pakistan. The prolific London-based writer Abu Baseer al-Tartousi turned out to be one of Al Qaeda’s leading ideologues. Many young Syrians joined Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, helping him rise to infamous heights—some even became Zarqawi’s top aides. There’s no doubt much of this happened with the connivance of Syrian authorities, which allowed jihadists to wreak havoc in places where their nihilism converged with the regime’s own interests in fomenting mayhem: radical Syrians abroad were able to stick a wrench in Iraqi and Lebanese affairs when it saw fit.
Damascus, meanwhile, figured the risk of blowback was minimal, or, at worst, manageable. So far it has been. Save for the attack on the U.S. Embassy in September 2006 and a car bomb at a security checkpoint two years later, news from Syria has been devoid of any jihadist-inspired headlines.
What’s most important, though, is that by invoking the threat of jihadists as cover for his crackdown on Arab Spring protesters, Assad risks drawing jihadists back into his country. Further brutality on demonstrators may look, on television screens in the West, like just another Arab strongman squashing dissent. But to militant expatriates, the scene is different: officers from the minority Alawite Shia sect beating down on a Sunni majority. The perception will drive anti-Shia jihadists back to Syria. Meanwhile, the regime will work to draw frightened minorities and urban Sunni merchants into its fold. Sectarianism, historically rife in Syria and known to anyone who has experienced life under the Assads, is the fast-burning fuel that could quickly spark what would surely be a vicious civil war.
The jihadists, should they return, would come with a fury. In past years, security sweeps have kept control over most Islamic fundamentalists who had come home to roost. Take the shadowy outfit that called itself by the same name that al-Zarqawi had adopted for himself at the onset of his jihad. It made two audio releases a few months apart in 2007 laden with threats and grandiose visions. But it couldn’t galvanize followers (perhaps there weren’t enough to be rallied in the first place). In the end it was all smoke, no fire.
But a new crop of militants has been battle-hardened by Iraq. And the arid lands of western Iraq, abutting the Syrian border, could quickly become a Waziristan-like haven from which they could restock munitions, raise funds, and train new recruits. Sunni Iraq has ejected Al Qaeda but will likely sympathize with these Syrian insurgents for sectarian and cultural reasons. After all, the people on either side of the border of the Euphrates Valley, and farther north toward the lands west of Mosul, are indistinguishable by accent, tribal affiliation, and sect.
According to a well-placed Iraqi security source, the man who seems poised to lead a potential jihad in Syria—the 43-year-old Abdel-Hakim Ali Ashayish al-Ugaili—is a native of the Syrian town of Dayr az Zawr, which lies a short drive from Iraq’s Anbar province. He is a veteran of Chechnya, Bosnia, and a bunch of other jihadist hotspots. For the last few years he’s been working between Syria and Baghdad.
These ties matter. Daraa lies on the northwestern rim of the Hawran plain, mirrored by the lands of northern Jordan in the southeast. It was in that corner of Jordan that al-Zarqawi was born and reared in a cultural ecosystem that is itself indistinguishable from Daraa’s.
What happens in Syria won’t be easily confined to its own borders. The spillover effect would mean that Jordan, where a shaky monarchy is trying to stay a step ahead of popular demonstrations, would be pulled into the chaos. Another flash point would be the Sunni enclaves in Lebanon that border Syria. Lebanon has been simmering with Sunni-Shia tensions for a while, and in the last few years Sunnis and Alawites have sporadically clashed in the north with light arms and mortar barrages. All more than enough for serious concern.
Assad has called out the jihadists as his enemy of choice. The rhetoric may not represent reality, but the jihadists would like nothing more than to oblige. Strategically, Syria would be an ideal cauldron in which militants could fan the flames of a jihad that is dying out in Iraq and Afghanistan. What Damascus doesn’t realize is that the rougher the repression on the Arab Spring, the more it is instigating a jihadist campaign of violent vengeance. It has a real chance at success. And the West, despite its reluctance, will then have to contend with multiple Fallujahs sprouting within striking distance of the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
Kazimi is the author of Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy (Hoover Press).