Jihadist Group Complicates Picture In Syria

Syrians appear behind the damaged windshield of a minibus as they inspect the site of a blast in the central Midan district of Damascus last month. A new jihadist organization in Syria claimed responsibility for the attack.

Syrians appear behind the damaged windshield of a minibus as they inspect the site of a blast in the central Midan district of Damascus last month. A new jihadist organization in Syria claimed responsibility for the attack. Louai Besharalouai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Louai Besharalouai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

It was Friday, April 27, when a car bomb exploded in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan. Syrian state television showed soldiers and civilians running from the smoke of the explosion under a bridge. Then the camera closed in on streams of blood and body parts.

The Syrian regime's narrative is that the uprising that has gripped the country for more than a year is not a case of people protesting and sometimes fighting for their rights; the official stance is that it's terrorism.

Days after the April attack, that narrative seemed to be validated, as a new jihadist organization released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack in Midan. The al-Qaida-style terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra Li-Ahl al-Sham, or Front to Protect the Syrian People, has apparently entered the fray.

Following the group's claim to the attack, alarmist media stories emerged about how rebels who oppose the Syrian regime have worked with foreign fighters and that they make their own bombs.

Terrorism experts say, however, that it isn't quite so simple.

Some See Democracy As Religion

Brian Fishman has been studying jihadist groups in Syria's neighbor, Iraq, for years. He says so far, Jabhat al-Nusra appears to be legitimate. Online, he says, they use the typical jihadi icons and rhetoric.

"Moreover, the [Jabhat al-Nusra] as a group has been embraced by the jihadi community online," Fishman says, "including some important scholars, particularly in Jordan, but other major figures, ideological figures, within the jihadi trend."

Still, the group is very small, he says, and not necessarily aligned with the protesters and the rebels in Syria. While jihadists might have the same goal as the protesters and the rebels — overthrowing the Syrian regime — Fishman says they don't have the same plan for what happens after that overthrow. And they certainly don't have the same ideology.

"From their world view, democracy is a religion because it asserts the sovereignty of human beings over the sovereignty of God," Fishman says. "So when they see protesters in Syria calling for democracy, they believe that this is a call for the imposition of a religious system that is antithetical to the system they would like to install."

For now, Fishman says, the jihadists might be willing to put these differences aside and work with the protesters and the rebels. That's not to say the protesters and the rebels want to work with them, though.

'The Disintegration Of Order'

The irony in all this is that the presence of these jihadi groups might actually strengthen the regime in the short term, by scaring Christians and other minorities in Syria into believing the regime is their sole protector. It could also scare off the international community, which fears any intervention might only attract more jihadists.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University, used to be the policy planning director at the State Department. She says the presence of jihadist groups in Syria shouldn't dissuade the U.S. and its allies from intervening. Rather, she says, it should wake them up to the dangers that a prolonged conflict in Syria could create.

"If countries in the region and beyond start seeing this as the disintegration of order within which any number of groups can then act," she says, "that becomes an even greater danger than simply an internal civil war spilling over borders, which is bad enough."

Slaughter says one major threat is the Syrian regime's stockpile of chemical weapons. No one would like to see those fall into the hands of jihadists.

She says while the jihadist presence in Syria might help the Syrian regime in the short term, it could eventually force the international community to intervene — and change the regime's narrative for good.

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