The Obama administration has signaled in word and deed that a policy change is in the offing, a change that would accommodate the Syrian regime and normalize relations with it. The notion of autocracy as a guarantor of stability is back in vogue after the Bush years, and so the policy is being bolstered by a chorus of analysts and academics. The Syrian regime, the thinking goes, is as good as it gets for helping to keep simmering regional tensions under a tight lid.
But this change would be a bit of a gamble. It is premised on two notions: the idea that the Assad regime is, in fact, stable; and the idea that, by drawing closer to the regime, Washington will make it more stable, not less.
What these assertions ignore is the potential role that jihadism could play in undermining the Assad government. In a speech several months before his demise in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi concluded that one of the goals of jihad should be the wholesale annihilation of Shia in theaters of war in which jihadists are engaged, as a precursor to fighting the West and Israel. Zarqawi argued that the Shia constituted the internal enemy within Islam, forever enabling the faith’s enemies from without. Zarqawi had found that sectarian antipathy was a quick burning fuel for the jihadist ideological machine: It was an innovation, and a leap forwards, for jihadist strategy.
Few have pondered the grave implications of Zarqawi’s strategic vision for long-term stability in Syria, a country where a hated minority heterodox Shia sect rules. But Islamists arguing for a jihad in Syria believe that they have hit the trifecta: In the Syrian regime, they have an enemy that is at once tyrannical, secular, and heretical.
Notable jihadist ideologues and strategists, such as Abu Musaab Al Suri and Abu Baseer Al Tartousi, both Syrian, have long argued that Islamists have a score to settle with the ruling Alawites for the brutal manner by which they subdued the Islamist uprising of the late 1970s and ’80s. Obscure jihadist groups have emerged within Syria, making the same claims, only to mysteriously disappear and never be heard from again, probably a testament to the regime’s security successes in dismantling them. Likewise, jihadists in Lebanon, long accused of receiving Syrian backing to undermine the Lebanese state, have made attempts to counter that stigma by launching attacks inside Syria, and with a sectarian tinge to boost, such as the car bombing in September 2008—the first major terrorist attack since the ’80s—at a checkpoint leading to the most revered Shia shrine near Damascus. But such activity has also been easily rolled back by the Syrian secret police.
Now, however, members of the jihadist internationale are asking themselves: Where to after Iraq and Afghanistan? On jihadist online discussion forums, they have been authoring what amount to policy papers calling on the jihadist leadership to take the fight to Syria. The clearest statement of this view was penned a year ago by Abul Fadhl Madhi, a rising star on the forums, who made the novel argument that waging jihad in Syria would preempt the strategic calculation of Western and regional powers: Should the jihadists take over Syria, they would disrupt the strategic balance that the United States was trying to forge across the Middle East by giving the jihadists a base in the heart of the region, within striking distance of Israel.
In Syria, jihadists would be aided by logistical familiarity with the terrain and customs; at the beginning of summer, one is always struck by the throngs of young Saudi, Kuwaiti, and other Gulf males—usually the best regional recruiting pool for jihadists—patiently waiting for their passports to be stamped at Syrian overland border points. Tens of thousands of them go there annually. Many numbers may have Syrian mothers, married off to wealthier Saudis and Gulf Arabs who had gone shopping for younger brides. Plus, there are large numbers of Sunni Syrian families working in Saudi Arabia whose sons and daughters have been exposed to a Wahhabi curriculum, in many cases a sure recipe for radicalization. Moreover, hundreds, if not thousands, of Syrian youth were battle-hardened at the Iraq front after flocking to fight the U.S. invasion from the very beginning, and later joining the Zarqawist insurgency. Many of them became mid-level leaders of the Al Qaeda organization there. Some of them even became Zarqawi’s most trusted aides, such as his onetime right-hand man Abul Ghadieh Al Suri, killed in an air strike near the Syria-Iraq border a year before Zarqawi’s own demise.
Jihadists have been managing and carrying out logistical operations in Syria for years, constructing networks of safe houses and figuring out which Syrian security officers can be bribed. While this know-how was devoted to sustaining the jihad in Iraq, it could easily be flipped towards a Syrian focus.
If the jihadists are not a spent force, and if they choose to concentrate their efforts on Syria, then it stands to reason that the Syrian regime may face a very grave challenge to its survival. The idea that a security regime can tether down the wild beast of jihadism misses the technological, financial, and recruiting innovations that have freed jihadists to a large extent from their past reliance on state sponsors. This newfound confidence accentuates the unwillingness of the “vanguard” to submit to any master beyond its revolutionary passions.
Of course, stability would hardly be served by allowing the jihadists to have their way. As brutal as the Assad government is, neither the world nor Syria would be better off with the jihadists in charge. But it’s far from clear that support from Washington would make Assad more stable vis à vis the jihadists. The jihadists would likely understand U.S. engagement with Syria as an ironic twist of events: Rather than punishing the Syrians for enabling jihadists in Iraq, the Syrian regime would be propped up as a bulwark against jihadist expansion. In this Faustian deal, the jihadists would undoubtedly smell weakness—both on the part of Assad and on the part of the Americans—not to mention opportunity to target another regime allied with the West.
It is impossible to say whether large numbers of jihadists will eventually fixate on Syria. However, it certainly seems like jihad in Syria makes strategic sense for the jihadists, and as we have seen in Iraq and beyond, they are rational and strategic actors who will follow what is in their best interest. Why then, at this junction, would the Obama administration count on the long-term survival of the Assads as a fait accompli, warranting accommodation?