Al-Qaeda: From Iraq to Syria?

Muthanna Edan – 15.2.2013 – Egypt Independent

After losing a significant amount of its power in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, it looks like Al-Qaeda is now trying to rebuild itself and re-boost its forces in Syria. Exploiting the Syrians’ revolt, the organization is trying to put itself together again amid the protracted struggle to bring down President Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Nusra Front, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, made its first public appearance in Syria in January 2012. It said it was joining the Syrians in their revolution, which is similar to what happened in Iraq after the 2003 American invasion.

Al-Qaeda formed its core base in western Iraq in Ramadi in 2004. It played on the poor living conditions of Iraqis at a time when they were fighting the occupation forces, exploiting ordinary Sunnis’ feelings, their lack of education and their love for Islam.

Thus, elements of Al-Qaeda, who had come from different parts of the world and received special training, succeeded in winning the confidence of many Iraqi families who had lost trust in both the government and the several competing fronts that emerged in the country after the American occupation.

Al-Qaeda gave moral and even financial assistance to these people. The result was that some families found in it to be the only supporter of their rights, prompting some to join its ranks.

The same thing is happening now in Syria. More than one media source has said that a large number of the jihadi cells there originally fought in Iraq. Al-Nusra Front itself, led by Mohamed al-Joulani, has said in more than one video that it moved to Syria after fighting on other jihadi fronts.

The reception for Al-Nusra Front, which claimed responsibility for several suicide attacks inside Syria, has varied among Syrian anti-Assad groups. Some bodies support it, while others reject external intervention in Syrian affairs.

What complicates the matter further is that Assad has used the presence of foreign fighters on Syrian land to declare that he is not waging war against his people, but, rather, against terrorists from Al-Qaeda.

In Iraq, Al-Qaeda revealed its true face after spreading to the country’s central and western cities and starting to use violence against anybody who stood in its way, including its own members who had defected.

The conditions in Syria today seem similar to those in Iraq in the mid-2000s. Just as Al-Qaeda began to establish its Islamic state in Iraq in 2007, Al-Nusra Front recently announced its intention to establish a Syrian Islamic state after bringing down Assad’s regime.

In Iraq, Al-Qaeda’s influence spread to Baghdad’s southern peripheries. The organization even created its own ministries, complete with ministers. However, when it started to discriminate between Sunnis and Shias and to kill and uproot Shia and Christian families and demolish minority houses of worship, the majority of tribes formed their own forces in 2007 and allied with the Iraqi and American armies to expel it from Iraq.

The Syrian people, in revolt for 20 months now, face the same challenge. These armed forces have unknown sources of funding and modern weapons, and are trained to withstand all sorts of conditions.

Will the Syrian people achieve their goals without them? Are the Syrian people going to learn from the Iraqi experience? Will Syrians have to accept these groups, which do not differ much from Assad, who killed thousands of Syrians?

The coming days should give us answers, especially since, by claiming responsibility for several attacks that killed Syrian civilians, this group has given Assad excuse to use extreme violence against his people.

Muthanna Edan is an Iraqi journalist who writes on developments in Syria and Iraq.

This article was translated by Dina Zafer. This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.