WASHINGTON, September 7, 2013 — With President Obama threatening a military strike on Syria, President Assad apparently using chemical weapons, and rebel leaders killing enemy prisoners and eating their organs, many wonder what else could possibly go wrong in Syria.
The answer is: A lot.
Without some divine-like intervention, Syria could catapult into a failed state or, even worse, a failed state that is a safe-haven for terrorists.
Since the two-year civil war in Syria started, the country has fragmented. Syrian national identity has disappeared. Citizens now side with the government or the rebels, the Alawhites, the Sunni’s or the Shiites, Aleppo residents or Damascus dwellers.
This is a magnified mirror of the current situation in Libya, where central government authority has disappeared. That country is now run by militias and warlords who use force to capture and control territory. Over the last year, militants have used force to “influence” legislators and surrounded the national assembly to make their point. Warlords currently occupy the ports, prohibiting the central government from shipping oil, the primary source of revenue for the country.
As long as Assad is in power, the overriding divide is between those who support the government and those who support the rebels. After he leaves, however, those loose alliances almost certainly will dissolve.
The government side currently includes members the Muslim Alawite minority, soldiers, the National Defense Forces, Iranian Revolutionary Guard members, and the Shiite Hezbollah militants. There are also pro-regime militias, such as Shabiha, which are allied with the government but act independently.
Without Assad, government forces are likely to devolve into their own brigades, fighting for their own interests.
Alawite militias say they will refuse to surrender even if Assad, himself a member of the sect, leaves office. The group worries that rebels, who are primarily Sunni, will try to eradicate the group if they rule Syria. The fears appear well-founded. Sunni leaders have called Alawites “more infidel than Jews and Christians, even more infidel than many polytheists” and authorized a jihad against them. Rebel groups have targeted Alwites and executed several Alawite religious leaders.
The rebels, or opposition, are highly divided. Squabbling inside each group, between groups, and with supporters has significantly hobbled rebel efforts to overthrow Assad or to win international backing.
Despite forming a “unified” Syrian National Coalition and a Supreme Joint Military Command last November, the opposition has no single recognized leader or organizational structure. Internally, their members differ on strategy and policy, and leaders have resigned over turf battles.
Moreover, these two national organizations have little legitimacy with on-the-ground fighting forces and have demonstrated almost no ability to control the myriad of fighting forces. Forces fighting in Syria, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), distain the exiled intellectual political leadership headquartered in Istanbul and refuse to take orders from them.
The forces on the ground lack coordination and some are outwardly hostile to each other. The al-Qaeda affiliated al Nusra Front and the FSA are at war with each other after al Nusra killed an FSA leader. The Free Syrian Army says it is not religiously-affiliated, whereas the Syrian Liberation Front and the Syrian Islamic Front both espouse Islamic ideology.
There are also an unknown number of independent rebel brigades that operate in the country.
The al Nusra Front, the most radical of the known groups, has recently grown in number thanks to defections from the FSA and an influx of foreign fighters. The core of the group came to Syria from Iraq and publicly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. Al-Nusra is the best organized and best armed rebel group in Syria.
The ultimate danger of a post-Assad Syria is a chaotic failed state which provides the opportunity for al-Qaeda to establish a foothold and create a terrorist safe-haven. Al Nusra is already consolidating its position in the country, and attracting like-minded militants from across the region.
A war-weary Syria, faced with no national identity, no strong leader, no democratic institutions, a decimated infrastructure, and lack of resources is prime ground for al-Qaeda to flourish.
Despite public relations cheerleading that al-Qaeda is dead, dying or even mortally wounded, the group remains extremely effective at carrying out attacks, recruiting members, and raising money. It has evolved from a centrally-controlled organization under Osama bin Laden to a decentralized franchise-like organization under ultimate leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Rather than hobbling al-Qaeda, this decentralized structure has strengthened the group, making it difficult for Western intelligence to track or dismantle the various organizations.
In early August, the world held its breath after the United States and Yemen announced they had intercepted information that suggested a major al-Qaeda threat “was imminent.” The threat closed 20 diplomatic missions in North Africa and the Middle East. Earlier this summer, al-Qaeda coordinated several attacks on prisons throughout the region to free militants.
According to the Global Terrorism Database, al-Qaeda has launched four times as many terrorist attacks since the death of Osama bin Laden than while he was still alive. More than 98 percent of al-Qaeda attacks are aimed at overthrowing secular governments in the Middle East and North Africa and replacing them with Islamist governments.
The situation in Northern Mali last spring clearly highlights al-Qaeda’s strength and opportunism. After a military coup toppled the central government in Mali, ethnic Tuareg fighters launched a military effort to take over northern Mali, which they consider their homeland. Al-Qaeda fighters joined to “assist” the Tuaregs. However, after establishing control of the region, al-Qaeda banished the Tuaregs and established strict Sharia law in the region.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates were ousted only after France sent troops to remove the militants.
Although it has found a relatively secure base in Yemen, where authorities lack the capability to thwart the group, al-Qaeda is searching for an even safer sanctuary. The chaos and instability that likely will face Syria after Assad leaves could provide that opportunity.
Syria, with its chemical weapons, oil reserves, ports and chaos, is almost certainly on al-Qaeda’s radar. The al Nusra Front is already establishing the pathway for al-Qaeda to enter, and it is now just waiting for the final invitation.
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