Blowback in Syria: Damascus's terrorist past may help define its future

By James Denselow

London, Asharq Al-Awsat - The month of May saw a double suicide attack in Damascus that brought a country increasingly defined by an atmosphere of Civil War to the top of the news as a victim of terrorism. The attack was eerily similar to the ones that have blighted Iraq over the past ten years. The first bomber’s vehicle attempted to breach the walls of a Syrian military intelligence building while the second vehicle exploded a few minutes later decimating the crowd that had gathered killing 55 and wounding hundreds more. Syria's state-run news agency was quick to publish gruesome pictures of the victims of the attack which President Bashar al-Assad's regime pinned on "foreign-backed terrorist groups."

The standard questions speculating who was behind the bombings followed with Al-Qaeda and its latest offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) coming out as the prime suspect, a view confirmed by the United Nations and the United States. The fact that the regime in Damascus has wanted to define the conflict as one between the government and terrorists since its inception in March 2011 has led the opposition to quite legitimately challenge this Al Qaeda narrative. As Stephen Starr, author of “Revolt: Eyewitness to the Syrian Uprising”, explained to Asharq Al-Awsat; “we have always had to second guess the regime when it talks about terrorism in Syria; because of the broader propaganda we regularly can't believe their claims. With this is mind, I don't think we can be sure terrorists are actually responsible for the recent bombings in Damascus, despite apparent claims of such. It is all too hazy to declare anything with certainty”.



The Syrian regime clearly believes that it can exploit the fog of war and absence of real media coverage in the country to replicate a much tried and tested narrative used by Western governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The core of such a tactic relies on blaming everything on terrorism and terrorists and then using it as a justification for a disproportionate harsh response. Fayssal al-Hamwi, the Syrian representative at the UN Human Rights Council, highlighted the regime’s use of this tactic when he blamed the Houla massacre on “groups of armed terrorists numbering 600-800”. The Syrian government announced a committee of inquiry to find out what the truth was with its initial report stating that the main motive of the murderers was “to ignite sectarian strife”. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice described al-Hamwi’s claims as “another blatant lie”.

A Complex Beast

Syria's relationship with terrorism is a far more complex beast with a history that can be traced back to the start of Assad rule of the country over 40 years ago. Syria has used its foreign policy and its backing of proxy groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine to champion its self-styled position as 'leader of the resistance bloc'. The 10 May suicide attack bore parallels with the famous 1983 Hezbollah suicide attack on a U.S Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 220 marines and led to the Reagan administration withdrawing from the country. Car bombs and suicide attacks were also a common tactic used by Hamas during the 2nd Intifada against Israel. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are allies of the Syrian regime, with a complex network of financial, political and historical links. However, following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Syria became linked to far more unpredictable and dangerous terrorist groups who used their country as the main transit route to fight the Americans. Today the regime has paradoxically found itself as the target of resistance movements that are hugely varied in composition and tactics ranging from secular military defectors, Kurdish fighters to those who would fight under a religious flag against the Assad regime.

Syria has ridden the lion of supporting terrorist groups in the past and is now experiencing a deadly blowback as the less controllable elements turn against them and the more conventional ones abandon them.

The US State Department has had Syria on its list of state sponsors of terrorism since the list's inception in 1979 “because of its continuing support and safe haven for terrorist organizations”. Arguably its support can be divided into more traditional groups who've looked to capture or influence the state (the Hezbollah / Hamas models) and the far more dangerous extremist groups (Al Qaeda / Jund al-Sham / Al-Nusra Front etc) who, while providing effective opposition against the US throughout their occupation of Iraq, increasingly view the conflict in Syria through a sectarian lens.

Prior to the outbreak of protests in March 2011 Syria was already experiencing a low level terrorist threat with the group 'Jund al-Sham' claiming responsibility for attacks on the US Embassy and even the same intelligence building in Damascus that was hit in May. Following the outbreak of violence across Syria and the deployment of the military against the protestors a plethora of groups have tried to exploit the new space created by the conflict. The regime, unwilling to consider itself to blame for the protests, has stuck to the rhetoric of blaming others. On the 29th of May Syrian State media reported President Assad’s meeting with Kofi Annan where he stressed the need “for the countries who are financing, arming and harbouring the terrorist groups” to commit to Annan's plan. Assad told Annan that the success of his plan depends on stopping weapon smuggling and curbing terrorism and those who support it.

Blowback from Iraq

There is no small amount of irony around Assad opposing weapon smuggling considering his regime’s long standing practice of it. The Iraqi-Syrian border in particular was once a source of transit for fighters to Iraq and is now seeing the flow is reverse. Chris Doyle, Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu), explained to Asharq Al-Awsat that “there is a huge danger that Jihadi groups will be rushing to Syria to exploit the power vacuum and inter-communal tensions. In the past the regime has allowed certain groups to operate within its borders, some of these that were allowed into Iraq to attack the Americans are now returning to attack the Syrian regime, particularly in the East of the country.

The long desert border, which was largely un-demarcated until the 2003 US invasion, is very difficult to regulate during the day and virtually impossible without aerial surveillance and night-vision equipment, capacities that the Syrian military generally lacks. On the 27th of May Iraqi security forces went on high alert for several hours until Sunday morning following clashes between the Syrian army and rebel forces near the border. The village of Abu Kamal, at the Euphrates Iraq-Syria border crossing, used to be a safe haven for those fleeing the violence in Iraq. Today those on the Iraq side of the border are the ones who feel safer. Writing in the 'Combating Terrorism Center' (CTC) journal Brian Fishman explained that “in contrast to the situation in other Arab Spring revolutions, in Syria militants linked to Al Qaeda seem to have a militarily relevant capability on the ground”. Analysts monitoring the internet chatter on extremist websites have also noted “level of excitement, which has not been seen in these circles since the height of the Iraq war”.


What makes an understanding of the extremist groups crossing from Iraq to Syria more complex is the rumoured relationship between them and Iran. On the 9th of May, Anbar tribal leader and Awakening Movement leader Azzam al-Tamimi, told the press that “there are clear links between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Iranian regime....Tehran is providing training camps for their members.” Syria, like Iran, also had links to these groups, as Andrew Tabler, author of ‘In the Lion’s Den’ who spent seven years working in Damascus, explained: “looked at historically, the Assad regime may be secular, but it has extensive relations with jihadi groups, whether allowing them to transit Syria to fight the US in Iraq or in Lebanon to carry out its foreign policy objectives.” A senior Lebanese security official said recently that at least 150 foreign militants have gained a foothold inside Syria. Whilst this number may not seem particularly large, the tactics that such groups are willing to deploy makes them dangerous force multipliers. For evidence of this reality we can look again to Iraq, a country that suffers from a chronic terrorism problem. Despite significant advances against Al Qaeda in the western Anbar region, the US military estimates that 850 militants are still operational and are linked to coordinated, simultaneous attacks across the country. Likewise JN and future offshoots should be seen as an accelerant to the conflict rather than a defining element, although as occurred in Iraq any spectacular sectarian attack against an iconic individual or location may create unforeseen consequences.


Blowback from Lebanon

The regime is also trying to secure its western border with Lebanon, another border that historically was criss-crossed with smuggling routes. The 200-mile long border, dismissed in the past by Syrian leaders as a colonial imposition dividing al-Sham (Greater Syria), has suddenly become a contested zone. In November of last year, concerned by reports of the nascent 'Free Syria Army' (FSA) transiting the border and arms smuggling, the Syrian army took the drastic step to start demarcating the border with security forces and landmines. According to Human Rights Watch many people fleeing the violence have been seriously wounded.

A particular concern for the regime in Damascus comes from the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, another location where Syria has held historical influence. Media reports have emerged of Palestinians from Ein el-Helweh camp writing their wills and heading into Syria via Tripoli. Tripoli meanwhile is increasingly divided. On 13 May, the arrest of Shadi Al Mawlawi in Tripoli for alleged links with terrorist organizations was followed by protests in the city. Four days of violence ensued between gunmen from various factions, during which time 10 people were killed and many more injured. The situation remains tense. On Sunday 20 May, a Sheikh and his companion were shot dead at an army checkpoint. The killing sparked a violent response in the north of Lebanon with protesters blocking roads and demanding that the army withdraw from some areas. While Tripoli remained relatively calm, the event led to fighting between rival groups in Beirut, resulting in the deaths of two people and 18 others being injured. Lebanon remains both a source of danger to the regime in Damascus and the country most likely to be destabilised by Syria descending deeper into civil war.

The Ghost Militia

While outside observers may increasingly view the situation in Syria as a civil war, the regime is still operating as if it is fighting a foreign-backed insurgency. What makes Syria's counter-insurgency strategy particularly savage is its use of state backed militia groups such as the 'Shabiha' or 'Ghost Militia'. Chris Doyle pointed out that “one of the lessons from the massacre in Houla is that it is much easier for people who aren’t in uniforms to conduct this kind of crime. The massacre could have been conducted by people from neighbouring Allawite villages who wanted to deliver a message with the support of the Syrian military.” The Shabiha are essential state sponsored terror groups that appear to have their own leadership and command structure. Slitting the throats of women and children, firing upon funeral processions and increasingly repeated mass executions are actions based upon trying to reassert a fear of the regime on those protesting against it.

At the start of June former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers says the possible use of force in Syria would be "a lot more complex" than it was Libya. The huge network of Syria’s connections with groups in Lebanon and since 2003 Iraq does mean that to truly understand events in Syria you must look beyond its borders. The fundamental challenge for the survival of the Assad regime is to manage to contradiction between the rhetoric of being the vanguard of regional resistance to being the prime target of it. That the regime is willing to unleash the Shabiha on its own population is a reflection of desperation, not of strength. Speaking to his new Parliament at the start of June Assad said that “whoever did this in Houla could not be a human being but a monster. And even a monster could not carry out such an act.” The problem for Assad is that the Shabiha and many of the extremist groups crossing into the country are monsters of his own regime’s making.




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