First Published: 2013-01-29

 

After sowing jihadists in Iraq, Damascus harvests violence at home

 

Damascus may be feeling consequences of ‘playing with fire’ as regime forces fight Al-Nusra Front that has been linked to Qaeda in Iraq.

 

Middle East Online

By Prashant Rao – BAGHDAD

He who plays with fire gets burnt

At the peak of Iraq's sectarian war, officials in Baghdad accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime of allowing Islamist militants to cross the two countries' border to sow chaos.

Now, Damascus may be feeling the consequences of "playing with fire" as the uprising against Assad's rule enters its 23rd month and regime forces fight the Al-Nusra Front -- a formidable group that has been linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

At its peak, the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq was a key concern of the US military. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in the wake of deadly Baghdad bombings in August 2009 that "90 percent of terrorists" entered Iraq via Syria.

"They (Syria) contributed to forming a radical generation to fight the Americans in Iraq, but after the withdrawal, those fighters started thinking about working in Syria," Iraq's deputy interior minister Adnan al-Assadi said, referring to the December 2011 pullout of US forces from Iraq.

Assadi's remarks echo the complaints of Iraqi security officials who for several years argued that Assad's regime was responsible for actively allowing militants into their country.

In a December 2009 interview, then acting National Security Adviser Safa Hussein, referring to fighters crossing the 600-kilometre (375-mile) frontier, said that Syrian officials "are at the door -- sometimes they open it fully, sometimes they leave it half-open."

"They can make life very difficult for Al-Qaeda to come to Iraq ... I am talking about Damascus airport -- there are more Syrian intelligence agents at this airport than travellers, and they're able to control it pretty well."

A trove of documents discovered by American forces near the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar -- long a hub for foreign militants entering via Syria -- which were released in 2007, indicate that from August 2006 to August 2007, nearly 700 foreign fighters entered Iraq.

The fighters were using decades-old smuggling routes that became popular during an embargo imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, when many commodities had to be illicitly transported into the country.

After the 2003 US-led invasion, analysts and officials say Damascus looked the other way as those same routes became conduits for Al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

Now many are headed back into Syria to fight for jihadist groups, the best-known of which is the Al-Nusra Front.

"Like a corporation, it makes more sense to build on what you already have than reinvent the wheel," Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who followed Al-Qaeda in Iraq, said.

Al-Nusra Front first gained notoriety for its suicide bombings in Syria but has evolved into a formidable fighting force leading attacks on battlefronts throughout the country.

Its suspected affiliation to Al-Qaeda's front group in Iraq led to it being labelled a "terrorist" organisation by Washington in December.

At the time, the US State Department described it as a "new alias" for Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and said it was "an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes."

According to the US, the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq "is in control of both AQI and Al-Nusra" and reports on Internet forums used by jihadists indicate several hundred militants have made the trip from Iraq into Syria to fight Assad's regime.

Despite the designation, however, the group has been spearheading the anti-Assad rebellion as the main rebel Free Syrian Army struggles to overcome divisions in its ranks.

"It's definitely fair to say that this is blowback for the policy that they (Syria) pursued in Iraq," said Will McCants, a former counter-terrorism adviser at the State Department and now an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses.

"They were allowing jihadis to go across their border and fight for Al-Qaeda without giving a thought to, hey, when this war in Iraq dies down, where are these guys going to go next?" added McCants, who also writes for the popular Jihadica blog.

A Syrian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted, "It was a mistake to let these guys pass through Syria to go to Iraq -- now they are spitting on us, and fighting us."

"You can never compromise with them," he said.

One analyst pointed to American experiences of supporting Islamist fighters in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, which many say planted the seeds for what would eventually become Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

"When you empower fundamentally ideological fighters, they will come back potentially to bite you," said Brian Fishman, a former research director at the Combating Terrorism Center.

"The Syrian government played with fire for a long time."

 

Tougher penalties as UAE updates counter-terrorism law

Three senior Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades commanders killed in Gaza

Obama demands world action against jihadist ‘cancer’

France delivered arms to Syrian rebels 'a few months ago'

British jihadists on forefront on IS propaganda

Abbas holds talks with Meshaal in Doha

Iraq Kurds face real challenges in fight against IS jihadists

Death toll in Syria war tops 180,000

US reveals failed operation to rescue American hostages in Syria

Somali journalists face trial for ‘violence incitement’

Iran asks West: What is our reward for help against IS jihadists?

Turkey ruling party meets to agree Davutoglu as PM

Kuwait nabs suspected Al-Nusra Front financier

Hamas armed wing declares end to truce talks in Cairo

Tribal clashes kill dozens of people in troubled Darfur

Dubai real estate giant to repay debt four years ahead

Egypt hopes power cuts could ease next week

Jihadist beheading of US journalist sparks worldwide revulsion

Iran provides ‘advice’ to Kurds fighting IS jihadists in Iraq

Power cuts and petrol shortages: Life grows increasingly difficult in Libya

Suspected attack by Kurdish rebels kills one Turkish soldier

UN launches huge aid operation in northern Iraq

Israel pounds Gaza as mourners cry ‘revenge’

Outgoing first lady breaks silence on ‘falsehoods’ against Turkey President

Ex CIA boss: journalist's killing 'first IS terrorist attack against US

Scores of armed Yemen rebels boost positions in capital

Sinai jihadists punish supporters of Egypt army with decapitation

Germany ready to support Iraq Kurds in battle against ‘barbaric’ IS

Iran’s 'reformist' science minister sacked

Turkey assures Ocalan Kurdish peace process will press ahead

Hollande: international situation ‘most serious’ since 2001

Israeli minister: ‘Deif deserves to die’

German minister accuses Qatar of financing IS

US hits back at criticism of Ferguson racial unrest

Jihadists to US: stop air strikes or we will behead second reporter

Temporary Gaza ceasefire goes up in smoke

Islamic State in Syria: Not few brainwashed people but whole army

Egypt to US: Show us how you deal with unrest in Ferguson

Turkey seeks to revive peace talks with Iraq Kurdish rebels

Tit-for-tat attacks break Gaza ceasefire

Huthi rebels cook up ‘armed coup’ in Yemen capital

Flood of weapons in South Sudan: Who’s not to blame?

After morale boosting victory, Iraq forces intensify attacks on IS

Multi-national Arab Bank on trial for supporting terror

Violence-hit Libya gradually boosting oil output