There are several elements in the ongoing violence in Syria. There is the use of security forces by President Bashar Assad's regime; there are the reprisals and counterviolence by hodgepodge mix of defectors and armed civilians constituting the Free Syrian Army; and then there are coordinated attacks like last week's twin car bombings near a military-intelligence branch in a Damascene neighborhood, which reportedly killed at least 55 and wounded hundreds.
Both sides blamed each other for the explosions, which the Interior Ministry said involved two cars laden "with more than 1,000 kilos of explosives and driven by suicide bombers," like the bombings that became near-daily occurrences in neighboring Iraq. An obscure, relatively new Islamist group, Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl Ash-Sham, or the Support Front for the People of Syria, claimed responsibility for the blasts in a boilerplate al-Qaeda-like video message, just as it has for most of the handful of other major explosions that have rocked Syria in the past few months.
Until early this year the group was unknown. So far, all that is known is that Jabhat al-Nusra is led by someone using the nom de guerre Abu Mohammad al-Golani. Golani is a reference to Syria's Golan Heights, which is occupied by Israel. It's unclear whether it is composed of Syrians or foreigners or both, whether it has a sizable membership or ties to other more well-known militant groups in the region like Jund Ash-Sham, Fatah al-Islam and al-Qaeda in Iraq. Some observers question if it even exists as an independent entity, claiming that it is a front for elements within the Syrian regime working to fuel the government's narrative that it is facing an armed terrorist insurgency. Others say it is indeed a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq.
It's hardly a revelation that Syria's slow slide into failed statehood may attract criminal and extremist elements looking to profit from the disintegration of order. Instability, after all, is a petri dish for radicals. But if the Damascus attacks are the work of al-Qaeda and its Levantine franchises, does this mean that elements within the country's majority Sunni Muslim population, large swathes of which are fiercely antiregime, have become receptive to extremists' ideology and willing to accept their support?
One important line of inquiry is: How did two cars laden with 1,000 kilos of explosives travel undetected around Damascus, a city chock full of checkpoints? Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute and author of In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria, says that although he can't say with certainty who carried out the attacks, the secular Syrian state has a history of cooperating with jihadist networks despite the groups' seemingly incompatible ideologies as long as their short-term goals mesh. "We know this from the ratlines of fighters that used to go into Iraq," he says. But he and others also caution against viewing the Syrian regime as a monolith. Elements within its 18 or so security and intelligence bodies, for example, have long been said to operate without the knowledge of others.
A video uploaded to YouTube by antigovernment activists on Sunday suggests how some Assad loyalists may be trying to foment the idea of jihadists in the midst of Syria. In a short clip, Ahmad Mustafa, a boyish clean-shaven defector dressed in black military fatigues, says that he and others in his Republican Guard unit were given the black uniforms, which reportedly bear al-Qaeda insignia although it is difficult to tell from the video. He didn't think much of it, he says, until he saw photos in the Syrian press showing him walking alongside a blue-bereted U.N. monitor. "Nobody is surprised to see a photo of an international observer chatting with a member of al-Qaeda on the outskirts of Homs," the al-Watan newspaper said in an article accompanying the photo. Mustafa's claims are difficult to verify and may simply be more opposition counterprogramming.
In any case, the regime may not need go to such lengths. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has given his explicit support for the Syrian uprising. But more than approval from the less-and-less-influential Zawahiri, there are indications that Syria is becoming an attractive potential theater of operations for independent would-be jihadists who want to come to the aid of Sunni brethren besieged by a secular regime of Alawites, whom they consider members of an apostate group. There have been reports of a small number of Libyan and Tunisian fighters dying in Syria, despite declarations from many Syrian rebels that they don't need foreign manpower, just weapons and ammunition.
But for an extremist movement to take root, especially one with foreign members, it must plant itself within a receptive local community, among people who will support and shelter it. Bilal Y. Saab, a fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies who specializes in Middle East security and terrorism, says that historically the Levant has been hostile to global jihadists seeking a foothold in the region for several reasons: the presence of established mainstream Islamist groups whose ideology is at odds with the extremists; the region's formidable intelligence services; and, finally, Shi'ite Iran's "dominant influence" in the area. "Al-Qaeda will struggle to find a home in Syria," he says, adding that while it "could send fighters to wreak havoc and exploit the vacuum, it will take a lot for them to create an insurgent movement in the country."
Saab, a Syria and Lebanon expert who has advised the U.S government on both, says that may change "should Sunnis in Syria, feeling outpowered, enter into a devil's pact with al-Qaeda to defeat the Alawis. This is what happened in Iraq, where some Sunnis chose to cooperate with al-Qaeda to fight the Shi'ites." Still Saab and others say it is precisely because of the example of Iraq that Syria's Sunnis may shun radical elements, both foreign and local. "I don't think they romanticize these groups," says Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. For all its violence, the Syrian conflict is still fundamentally political, Hokayem says, and requires a political solution. "It's really about getting a shift in loyalty from the minorities, other key social groups around the country, and these groups aren't going to shift because of that kind of [extremist] violence."
Jabhat al-Nusra also seems cognizant of the need to reassure certain minorities. In a video claiming responsibility for a blast dated March 20, the group addresses Christians. "We tell Christians that they were not the targets of the attack on the air-force site in their neighborhood," the message says. Hokayem says the only real political impact extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra are likely to have on the Syrian conflict is that they "are going to contribute to defining the struggle in more sectarian terms."
There are already signs of the conflict's religious entanglements, from anecdotal tales of drunkards becoming pious Muslims to the nomenclature of units of the rebel Free Syrian Army, many of which are named after historical Sunni figures who fought against Shi'ites. Many rebels have also taken to wearing distinctive Salafi-style beards (with shaved mustaches). The facial hair, however, may not necessarily mean that its wearers adhere to conservative Salafi ideology. It may simply be a means of emphasizing an element of a man's identity, a way to clearly be defined as a Sunni, albeit of a particular sort. "The Assad regime would like this to be blurred," Tabler says. "They would like the formula to be opposition equals Sunnis equals terrorists." If only things in Syria were that simple.