Syria Civil War: Al-Qaeda is Now a Big Time Player in Syria, and It Could Be Catastrophic


The civil war in Syria, which has claimed over 70,000 lives and created hundreds of thousands of refugees, has degenerated into chaos. What started out as peaceful demonstrations against a brutal dictatorship has morphed into an asymmetric battle between heavily armed state security forces and various opposition groups vying for power. One of the most powerful of these opposition groups, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), or the Victory Front for the Syrian People, now threatens not only Syria but also the entire region.

Reports indicate that Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a Sunni insurgent group that fought the United States to a standstill during its occupation of Iraq, sponsored, supplied, and enabled the rise of JN. Since its founding in January, 2012, JN has become one of the most cohesive and effective opposition organizations. On April 9, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of AQI, stated, "we thus declare ... the cancellation of the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the name of al-Nusra Front [JN] and grouping them together under one name, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [sic]."

On April 10, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, JN's leader, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. However, al-Golani voiced surprise at al-Baghdadi’s earlier statement and said that "the banner of the Front will remain the same, nothing will change about it even though we are proud of the banner of the [Islamic] state and of those who carry it."

The contradiction in statements between al-Baghdadi and al-Golani are a window into the internal rivalries within the wider Al-Qaeda network . While both of these leaders have sworn fealty to al-Zawahiri, they view each other as potential rivals. Al-Baghdadi, who inherited his command from the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, remembered for his mass casualty attacks on innocent Muslims, has lost influence as Iraq has come under the dominance of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In contrast, al-Golani and JN have risen in influence as the combination of their tactical successes against the Assad regime coupled with their civic outreach have won them support among some in Syria and international recognition.

The various opposition groups fighting against Assad share a common goal, that of overthrowing the regime. Yet what they wish to build after is where the difference in their desires becomes apparent. The Supreme Military Command (SMC) under Major General Salim Idriss represents the nationalist and mostly secular opposition that the United States has pledged to support.  In addition to the SMC, there are other brigades, that while religious in tone, share a mutual interest in achieving dominance within Syria's borders. JN, however, wishes to establish an Islamic state that includes not only Syria, but western Iraq and possibly parts of Lebanon as well.

The war that the United States fought against AQI revealed the weaknesses of both.  While the United States had difficulty sustaining its efforts in this ethnically complex theater of operation, Al-Qaeda was unable to expand its influence into new communities because of its brutal tactics. JN, while receiving foreign support and enlisting the technical expertise of foreign fighters, is a mainly Syrian phenomenon. This makes it especially dangerous, as it knows well both the physical and human terrain in Syria. Despite the apparent rivalry between the leaders of AQI and JN, both these groups share the same overarching ideology, to erase the current state boundaries and create a new Sunni-dominated state.