Jihadists Play Growing Role In Syrian Conflict

Audie Cornish speaks with Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation about the increasing role that jihadists and foreign fighters are playing in the Syrian conflict.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From the future to Syria's turbulent present. Fighting has spread across the country, with government troops struggling to quell neighborhoods once thought firmly under control. President Bashar al-Assad has long maintained that his forces are fighting foreign extremists, including al-Qaida - not home-grown revolutionaries. While many both in and out of Syria once doubted that claim, jihadists do now appear to be playing a role in the campaign against Assad's government.

For more on that, we're joined by Seth G. Jones. He's associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. Welcome to the program, Seth.

SETH G. JONES: It's great to be on, thanks.

CORNISH: So start with the basic definition of what, exactly, is a jihadist; what we're talking about here. And what evidence is there that jihadists are now at work in Syria?

JONES: A jihadist is a loaded political term. Jihad, in Islam, can mean many good things. I think what we're talking about in this particular case, though, are individuals who are using violence in order to overthrow a regime that they consider an infidel one. So in terms of evidence, what we're seeing in Syria is based on a range of reports from intelligence agencies in the region; comments from U.S. and other allied Western officials; and then also, from statements from some of these organizations themselves, including the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaida's front in Syria. They have been involved in a growing number of attacks in Syria, against its security services and other targets.

CORNISH: So Seth, put this in context. Just how many fighters are we talking about?

JONES: Well, the Syrian government has, for several months, argued that the bulk of the opposition are foreign fighters. That is - still appears not to be the case. It does appear that most of the fighters, including the Free Syrian Army, are made up of Syrians. And the al-Qaida and other extremists make up a very, very small percentage of the overall opposition. They are a competent, capable group, which has shown a proclivity to conduct high-profile, spectacular suicide attacks. But they are a minority of the opposition.

CORNISH: What are the reasons why this is coming to the forefront now?

JONES: Well, it think with the Assad regime looking weak, unstable; that it has become a magnet for groups. The Sunnis, which are a majority in Syria, have generally been marginalized from political leadership in the country. I mean, this is something that really walks right into the al-Qaida, and broader Sunni Islamic, ideology and propaganda. This is an effort, I think - as we saw in Iraq - to try and give the Sunni extremist movement much more of a say in post-Assad Syria.

CORNISH: What, exactly, is the relationship between Syrian fighters who are from Syria, and these foreign people who, you're saying, are now appearing? Is there a good relationship, a mixed one?

JONES: Well, I think right now, it looks like it's a very complicated relationship. The Free Syrian Army, and the bulk of the opposition in Syria, appears not to be motivated by the kind of extreme Sunni ideology that the al-Qaida, and other jihadi groups, are promulgating. And I have talked to a range of individuals from Syrian opposition, who argue that they are unhelpful because they're causing a number of governments in the region - including the Turks and the Jordanians as well as some of the countries from the Persian Gulf, like the Saudis - to think twice about assistance to Syrian opposition.

So it certainly hurts their image, and may appear to hurt their financial situation. And this is why, I think, we're seeing some Syrian opposition distance themselves from al-Qaida and some of the more extremist groups operating in Syria right now.

CORNISH: Seth Jones is author of the book "Hunting In The Shadows: The Pursuit Of Al-Qaida Since 9/11." Seth, thank you for talking with us.

JONES: It's great to be here, thanks.

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