Monday, December 30, 2013

Al Qaida in Syria Provides Wake Up Call

James J. Coyle: Al-Qaida in Syria provides wake up call
By JAMES J. COYLE / For the Register
Published: Dec. 12, 2013 Updated: 5:28 p.m.
Dozens of Americans have tried to join Islamist rebel groups in Syria, according to U.S. officials. They sought to join the estimated 6,000 to 8,000 foreign fighters.
Approximately 2,000 of their number are European. It is easy for these foreign fighters to reach Syria: international flights bring them to Turkey, where there are training camps exclusively for European recruits. From there, they easily slip across the border. Such numbers are troubling, because they represent a serious threat to the West when they return from their jihad in the Middle East.
The threat is not only to the West; Russia faces a similar problem. An Uzbek Salafist in Turkey uses the Internet to recruit in Europe, North America, Russia and Central Asia, according to EurasiaNet. Radical Kyrgyz in Moscow were recruited for the struggle by North Caucasians. Members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have left their fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go to Syria. While the number of Central Asians is still small, they have become more prominent in jihadist groups like al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. One press report says the “most dangerous and barbaric” of the al-Qaida fighters are 250 Chechens in the suburbs of Aleppo.
The group with the largest number of fighters is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams, also known as ISIS. This group has achieved notoriety for fighting as much against other rebels as against government forces. They recently seized the northern Syrian town of Termanin from a rival rebel unit, by seizing the bakery, intimidating the police and beheading those who opposed them. “The executions are designed to make maximum impact,” said activist Firas Ahmad. Jihadists have also kidnapped Kurdish rebel fighters and Orthodox nuns. Most recently, the U.S. government announced on Thursday that they were suspending delivery of non-lethal aid to rebels in Northern Syria because of the reports of the Islamists' seizure of territory from the Free Syrian Army.
The ISIS now control many of the supply lines by which Western powers are trying to resupply other rebel groups. In areas along the border with Turkey in Aleppo and Idlib, the ISIS is also seizing territory held by other hard-line Islamist units, reports the Lebanese Daily Star. Their commander, who goes by the nickname al-Jazaeri, said they had learned their lesson in other conflicts. “Our mistake as mujahidin is that we were preoccupied with fighting [Moammar] Gadhafi and did not pay enough attention to how to hold onto territory,” he told Reuters.
The result is a large swath of territory in the heart of the Middle East under the control of al-Qaida affiliated groups. This area has come to resemble Afghanistan: Islamic schools, training camps and burka-clad women. The threat from these groups, many identified as terrorist organizations, is a common thread that unites Russia and America going into the Jan. 22 Geneva conference talks. The superpowers had appeared to be waging a proxy war in Syria, with Russia and Iran supporting President Bashar al-Assad against rebels backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Recent meetings, however, show that these alignments are no longer true.
The U.S. accepted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's suggestion of foregoing military action in favor of Syria's decommissioning of its chemical weapons stockpile. With indications that the Dec. 31 deadline for the removal of 30 tons of chemicals might not be met because the road to the coast might not be safe for transport, there are no renewed American threats. Instead, quiet diplomacy seems the order of the day.
Last week, British and American officials met in Ankara with non al-Qaida Islamist groups. While refusing to name which groups with which he had met, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said it was important to learn the long-term plans of the organizations. Other officials said the purpose of the meeting was to encourage them to join in the Geneva II peace talks. It would appear that the al-Qaida threat is uniting the international community in unanticipated ways.
James J. Coyle is a professor and the director of Global Education at Chapman University and Chair of the Eurasian Committee of the Pacific Council on International Policy. He has been involved with Middle Eastern affairs for over 30 years.