“Syria has begun to evolve into a proxy battlefield of al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups,” Veysel Ayhan, an expert on the Middle East from Abant İzzet Baysal University, argued in remarks to Today’s Zaman, adding that jihadist groups were pursuing a strategy to change the Syrian crisis into an Islamic struggle.
Due to Assad’s unwillingness to meet the demands of the Syrian people, but also because of the support of global powers, the Syrian uprising, which began as a peaceful protest movement and slowly turned into an armed battle in response to the regime’s brutal suppression, reached a point in which the main players as well as the nature of the uprising seem to change.
Ayhan stated that struggle of Syria has turned into a jihadist struggle. “It is known that the Free Syrian Army [FSA] does not exert much influence on all the opposition groups. Therefore, these jihadist groups have started to play a much more active role in the crisis,” said Ayhan.
Since the start of the uprising, the Syrian regime has claimed that foreign-financed al-Qaeda and jihadist groups dominated the opposition, but the Syrian opposition has consistently denied this claim. Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups were not the key players in Syria initially, but as the crisis escalated, their influence in the crisis also deepened. “As the crisis drags on, the influence of these jihadist groups intensifies among the opposition, as these jihadist groups have experience in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Ayhan.
The Syrian opposition took over an important border crossing with Turkey, Bab al-Hawa, last week, cited as evidence that the Syrian opposition has become more organized.
Unconfirmed reports have also said groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, which has been involved in the uprising since mid-July, are in charge of Bab al-Hawa.
Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu emphasized last Friday that Ankara would not allow terrorist groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or al-Qaeda to establish a presence in Syria near the Turkish border.
Ayhan added that it was an undeniable fact that not only al-Qaeda but also other jihadist groups were building their struggle in Syria on Islamic motives. “The Syrian opposition needs a strong motivation to carry out their struggle against the Assad regime. Therefore, the Islamic motive of these jihadist groups is an important factor that plays a critical role in the struggle of the opposition,” said Ayhan.
According to Reuters, in the last few months a steady flow of Arab men from several countries have joined the FSA forces, and most have headed to the province of Hama in central Syria where a few jihadists, or Muslim religious fighters, with experience in Afghanistan have been giving them rudimentary training in handling assault rifles and guerrilla warfare.
Reuters has also learned that these Arab men were planning to join a unit called the Ahrar al-Sham brigades, adding that most of the foreign fighters had joined this unit. “It is our duty to go to the great Bilad al-Sham (Syria) and defend it against the Alawite tyrants massacring its people,” said Bin Shamar, 22, who spoke to Reuters in Reyhanlı, a Turkish town whose Arab inhabitants have historic links with Syria.
Ayhan stated that jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, were active in the Libyan crisis as well. Agreeing with Ayhan, Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, the head of Ankara’s International Strategic and Security Research Center (USGAM), told Today’s Zaman that when the Libyan crisis is considered, it becomes clear that al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups are not active in the first stage of a crisis but become involved later on.
“We can see a similar situation in the Syrian crisis as well. In both crises, Libyan and Syrian, we observe that after a certain level, al-Qaeda and other radical groups start to engage more effectively in the struggle against the regimes. For instance, in the Libyan crisis, after al-Qaeda engaged in the struggle on behalf of the opposition, Libyan President Muammer Gaddafi and his army weakened and the crisis turned in favor of the opposition,” said Erol.
It is also claimed that there were signs of al-Qaeda in a series of bombings, including the recent bombing in Damascus that killed three leaders of the regime, against the Assad regime. “The jihadist groups, which are known for their anti-West attitude, have started to fight against the dictators in the Middle East who are allies of the West,” said Erol.