In Syria, a power vacuum has created space for the emergence of Jihadists — how the West deals with this dilemma will be the next stage of Syria’s civil war.
By Carlos Colon
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is fighting against time as the rebel forces continue to gain ground. Russia, Syria’s largest arms supplier and a block to international efforts to intervene, has indicated that the opposition might win and more recently, President Vladimir Putin emphasized that they are not defenders of “the current Syrian leadership.” As Russia distances itself from Assad’s government, the regime’s 42-year relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) appears to be eroding as well. PLO officials claimed that the regime’s attack on the Yarmouk refugee camp, which killed as many as 25 people, marks a “historical moment“ with thousands of Palestinians now fleeing Damascus. While Assad is becoming further isolated, support for rebel forces continues to grow.
Though it is not new to the Syrian Civil War, the growing number of Islamic fundamentalist fighters remains a serious concern, and one that I have raised before. Although the opposition is closer to victory and has been formally recognized by countries such as Britain, France and much of the Arab League, the threat posed by the growing appeal of jihadi ideology has been growing at an even faster pace. In a Middle East security report, Elizabeth O’Bagy said that “[i]n Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, jihadist elements and extremists did not have major networks on the ground where they could exploit their own authority and influence in those revolutions. In Syria, however, they do have those networks.” This is due to the Syrian government’s history of sponsoring terrorism which contributed to the jihadist foothold in the country.
The actions taken by the international community have been empowering al Qaeda-linked extremists rather than deterring them. They are becoming both powerful and popular. When the United States declared al-Nusra Front a “foreign terrorist organization,” the Syrian National Coalition opposed the decision, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamad Tayfur condemned it, and many non-Islamist members of the coalition also objected to the label. Moreover, a recent video footage showed crowds in southern Syria denouncing the U.S. designation, highlighting its wide support throughout the country. With the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalist fighters, a Die Welt investigation asked, “Has Syria become al Qaeda’s new base for terror strikes on Europe?” The report discussed how the terror network in Syria includes dozens of European members and according to the Long War Journal, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is focusing his efforts on Syria, allegedly through al-Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani. Latest reports, discusses the emergence of a new jihadist group in Syria called Jund al Sham (Army of the Levant). According to LWJ, “Jihadist groups are popping up left and right in Syria as President Bashir al Assad’s regime continues to crumble.”
I’ve stressed the importance of having an established opposition leader before, but the fact that the opposition continues to ally with foreign jihadists makes things problematic. Any military backing from the West will indirectly support al Qaeda affiliated groups. Others emphasized that they are still an extremely small part of the groups that are fighting the Syrian regime. However, the real power behind radical extremists resides in their ability to influence others, as the number of people persuaded by their ideology continue to increase. Additionally, the Syrian conflict is a magnet for terror networks, and as the conflict drags on their numbers are likely to continue growing.
The answer is not through an intervention, but rather a negotiated settlement with regional and international backing. But needless to say, a resolution through diplomatic means will be difficult to achieve. It is unclear if there is even a concerted effort to truly end the crisis through negotiations.Two days after the bombing of the Palestinian refugee camp, a U.N. General Assembly meeting took place. Nine Mideast-related resolutions criticizing Israel were passed by large majorities, while the only reference to Syria was to the “occupied Syrian Golan.” Previously, on November 30, the assembly set aside one hour to discuss the Syrian conflict and then not a single delegate took the floor except for Syria’s. Bashar Ja’afari, the Syrian ambassador who spoke for 22 minutes, had a three-minute time limit, but no one interrupted him after Ja’afari exceeded his limit, and no one spoke afterwards. No matter what your stance may be on the Syrian crisis, the fact that the Syrian delegate was the only one to speak at the session reveals the shortcomings of current diplomacy. When the military might of Syria’s friends overwhelms their diplomatic assets, it becomes far too simple to overlook the strengths of negotiation for our faith in firepower. One thing is certain, though. The Syrian conflict will continue long after the fall of the Assad regime.
Carlos Colon is a Staff Writer at the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.
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