If there is one important common denominator between all Arab dictators that have had to face revolutions in their respective countries over the past 18 months it is their use of Al-Qaeda as a tool to blackmail the international community and scare their peoples to accept their continued reign in power as the only alternative to avoid plunging into a state of lawlessness, chaos and bloodshed. The late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi described the rebels as Al-Qaeda terrorists and tried to exploit his contacts with Western intelligence agencies to promote his image as a leader in a war on terrorism. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, while combating the rebellion repositioned his troops to make way for Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists to control cities and provinces in his country to continue his control over the country. Yemeni troops are now locked in bloody confrontations to uproot the extremists from their recently-established strongholds. Now, Syrian leader Bashar Assad seems to be doing the same. Car bombs have hit buildings housing offices of security agencies in Damascus and Aleppo claiming the lives of many people. Damascus was quick to accuse Al-Qaeda, and few days later a previously unheard of group calling itself the An-Nussra Front and alleging to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda, posted a claim on the website saying it was behind the bombings. A day later the same group disassociated itself from the bombings.
The Syrian regime efforts to associate the opposition with Al-Qaeda are getting indirect support from the West with statements made every now and then by officials speaking about “a presence of Al-Qaeda in Syria,” but without knowing what they are doing exactly. It is strange that Al-Qaeda, known to have the United States and the West as its arch enemy, chooses to take on the Syrian regime that is known for its animosity to the West. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syria was widely known by the intelligence community in the West and by the Iraqi government to be a main passageway to Islamic militants in route to carry out attacks and suicide bombings against U.S. troops and their allies in Iraq. Also, a year after the Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon by the Cedar Revolution in 2005, a group calling itself Fateh Al-Islam suddenly appeared in northern Lebanon at Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. The group’s leader, Shaker Al-Absi, had just been released from a Syrian jail, and most of the group’s members came via Syria. Although the group claimed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda, nevertheless, Al-Qaeda never adopted it. This was then a simple message to the international community that with Syria out, Lebanon has become vulnerable to extremist forces. With a similar scenario now in its own country, the regime is playing the same game: Me or Al-Qaeda?
Inhabitants of Syrian cities, especially the capital, talk about the extensive presence of Syrian troops and security forces throughout the city, with a checkpoint almost at every corner of Damascus that has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of demonstrations by the opposition. Yet, cars loaded with hundreds of pounds of C4 and explosives managed to drive through all the checkpoints and detonate in front of highly protected headquarters of security agencies in a police state like Syria. The likelihood of such an operation taking place several times in few weeks in a country like Syria is slim to none according to many security analysts who have been to Syria and know the nature of the regime there. Hence, what we likely have in Syria today is either a regime planting these bombs to build a case against Al-Qaeda to associate it with the opposition and give legitimacy to its suppressive actions, or the regime allowing Islamists in the country to use them as a warning to the West that if it did not stop supporting the opposition and reverse its negative position of the regime, Syria will become infested with Al-Qaeda-like Islamists carrying out operations in a failed state on Israel’s northern borders.
The Syrian regime has played and mastered the art of blackmail for many years by acting as a spoiler: It creates the problem and then offers itself as the solution to the ongoing problem. It allowed thousands of Islamic fighters into Iraq and then offered its services to both Washington and Baghdad to resolve the problem, but of course for a price, which is economic benefits and political clout in the region. Unfortunately, major powers across the globe entertained the Syrian regime for a long time and willingly played its game to an extent it does not seem now able to deal with it effectively. On the one hand the international community knows it can no longer support the legitimacy of the regime after all the killings, but on the other it is not sure whether there is a serious Al-Qaeda threat in Syria and how could it deal with it after the collapse of the regime, especially with Israel bordering Syria. Another blackmail card used by the regime now against its neighbors is sectarian civil war. It has used pre-dominantly Alawite security and military units and militias to attack Sunni neighborhoods and commit massacres in order to provoke a reaction that would turn the revolution against it into a civil war that could spill over into Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. Clashes between Sunni and Alawite fighters broke out over the past few days in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. The Lebanese Army intervened hoping to halt the gunfight. Once again, the Syrian regime is creating the problem and offering its survival as the only price to solve it, which is a huge gambit signaling the regime is on its last legs perhaps.
What the international community needs here is a game-changer – a major decisive move that will torpedo the regime’s survival strategy and force it out swiftly. Delay of what many believe is an inevitable international military intervention to end the crisis in Syria is only helping the regime increase its leverage in the blackmail game. Delay is also starting to prove very costly to the Syrian people as well as the international community because what the regime is doing with the radical forces is undermining the fight against violent extremists. Besides delay, denial is part of the game too in which the regime seeks to say “we are under threat.” Moreover, what the regime is doing with the sectarian element is undermining security in countries of vital and strategic interest to the international community and the West in particular, like Iraq, Turkey, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The cost of delaying the intervention seems to be by far outweighing the cost of a near swift intervention, whether via a United Nations Security Council Resolution or via an international coalition that will include Arab forces. Waiting two more months until the end of the mandate of the UN monitors whose presence in Syrian cities for over a month has not deterred the regime from its daily killings is just prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people and giving the regime more time. Efforts to get the regime to adhere to Kofi Annan’s peace plan have proven futile. The international community has always adopted a policy of no negotiations with those who support terrorists to avoid being blackmailed by those forces who support violent extremists. It is time to do the same with the Syrian regime.