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Syria: Al Qaeda, Extremism, and Foreign Fighters

In my last post I briefly mentioned the July 2013 Congressional Research Service report Armed Conflict in Syria: U.S. and International Response.  In this post I am copying part of the report’s section on Al Qaeda elements in the Syrian opposition:

In early 2012, U.S. officials stated that the violence and disorder paralyzing Syria was creating opportunities for Al Qaeda operatives and other violent Islamist extremists to infiltrate the country and conduct or plan attacks. According to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, “Sunni extremists” had infiltrated Syrian opposition groups, which may be unaware ofthe infiltration. As of June 2013, Sunni extremist groups appear to be increasingly active in Syria, including groups sympathetic to or affiliated with Al Qaeda. In April 2013, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that extremist militias were present in 13 of Syria’s 14 provinces “and are starting to establish municipal services, provide humanitarian aid, food, hospitals and
sharia law courts.”

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), released a statement in April 2013 proclaiming a merger with the Nusra Front (Jabhat al Nusra li Ahl al Sham , Support Front for the People of Syria),

although a reported Nusra leader downplayed any merger and pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. Zawahiri in turn has instructed the groups to refrain from rivalry and continues to encourage foreign fighters to travel to Syria and calls on Muslims to offer material support to armed jihadist groups in Syria. Other prominent armed Salafist groups include members of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), the Saquour al Sham brigades, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, the Ummah Brigade (Liwa al Umma), and the Islam Brigade (Liwa al Islam). The Free Ones of the Levant Battalions (Kata’ib Ahrar al Sham
) and other members of the SIF use jihadist rhetoric in some statements.

Islamist fighters in the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) rejected the reported merger of ISI and Al Nusra. The Lebanon-based extremist group Fatah al Islam has released a number of statements on the conflict and members of the group have been reported to be fighting in Syria.

Press reports and anecdotal accounts suggest that there may be competition for influence among extremist groups and that they have lacked overarching coordination or shared leadership. The formation of the SIF and Syrian Islamic Liberation Front in late 2012 and early 2013 may signal increasing cooperation among like-minded Islamist militia groups. Experts consider the SIF to hold more hard-line views about the imposition of sharia law and members of its constituent militias may hold more hostile views toward the United States and Israel.

Attacking Syria is taking sides in this civil war. The temptation to do so is great in light of Assad’s use of chemical weapons. I get that. But anything we do in Syria should be calculated to improve the situation and/or protect civilians. Simply bombing the country fails to do either and runs the real risk of giving giving Al Qaeda one of its long term goals – government of a Mideast country. That would be bad for everyone.

Stop the President’s attack. Sign the “No to War in Syria” petition at the White House. Signatures now are more important than signatures later.

If you want us to “do something”, urge the President and Congress to send aid to the more than 1.5 MILLION refugees who have fled Syria during the fighting of the past three years. Or get them to negotiate with all parties and border countries to find a solution for the 4.5 MILLION people internally displaced within Syria. Urge them to offer asylum to any Syrian who wants it who isn’t on any of our watch lists. Urge that our actions help people, not sooth wounded pride.

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