x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Pandora's Box of extremism in Syria dooms the ceasefire

If nothing is done to support opposition fighters in Syria they could turn to extremist tactics to weaken the Assad regime. And that is why international intervention can no longer wait.

The quiet on the streets of Syria at the beginning of the ceasefire is doomed to be broken. The Assad regime has killed too many of its people to quietly return to the previous state of affairs. And the recent violence has opened the country to elements of the opposition that will not stop their attacks regardless of the promises of the regime.

Just look at the events of March 17 and 18, which most of us might have associated with the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. The car bombings in Damascus and in Aleppo signalled a dangerous new turn. After more than a year, the brutality of President Bashar Al Assad and his loyalists is beyond question. But the initiation of a car-bombing campaign was alarming, possibly signalling that members of the armed opposition, driven by international apathy, are resorting to insurgent-terrorist tactics.

In the absence of international support, and any type of force parity, the Free Syrian Army had been taking heavy losses. It has been routed from Baba Amr and elsewhere and forced further and further underground. This may be leading more moderate members of both the FSA and the Syrian National Council to become marginalised, leading to a radicalisation of the opposition.

For Al Qaeda, Syria could be the answer to its prayers. Having alienated the Arab street with its crimes in the Iraq war, the terrorist organisation has, in Syria, a chance to reinvent itself as a defender of Sunnis. Those car bombings in Damascus and Aleppo had all the hallmarks of Al Qaeda attacks.

In the absence of intervention to prevent the mass murder of civilians, extremists will thrive and expand. When civil society breaks down, extremist elements are always able to create an "us" and "them" mentality in the population. The extremists create an environment where the most base and nihilistic identity politics prevail.

The First Chechen War, between 1994 and 1996, is a good example. Russia's military fought a war of annihilation against the Chechen insurgents, with little concern for the lives of civilians. It was an act of desperation in June 1995 when Shamil Basayev, a leader in the Chechen insurgency, launched an attack on a Budyonnovsk hospital, taking about 1,500 civilians hostage and eventually bringing a ceasefire.

The Chechen conflict also strengthened the bonds between Basayev and Ameer Ibn Khatab, a Saudi veteran of the Afghan war who was closely allied to Al Qaeda. Ibn Khatab organised Al Qaeda's financial and logistical support for Chechen insurgents.

The Chechens had to embrace a more hardline and foreign interpretation of Islam, which no doubt led to their further radicalisation and events like the 2004 Beslan school siege.

If there had not been international intervention in Bosnia, would it have shared a similar fate? Hundreds of Muslim extremists had begun to deploy in Bosnia, and even though there was an intervention eventually, Bosnia became a Petri dish for extremist movements.

The Free Syrian Army is being denied modern weapons, leading to a greater dependence on obsolete arms acquired from deserters, smugglers and Mr Al Assad's men. That limits the FSA to defence and most probably small-scale skirmishes. Faced with Mr Al Assad's heavier equipment and better organisation, the FSA will logically shift to an asymmetric strategy.

This shift will probably move from attacking the regime's forces by conventional means to the insurgent tactics that lead to terrorism. This means more car bombings and more suicide bombings. As the military targets become harder to hit, civilian "soft targets" will be preferred.

The people with the greatest experience, and with the fewest constraints, are the extremist groups. As the cycle of radicalisation begins, international intervention and support become more difficult as Mr Al Assad exploits the attacks to claim that he is fighting a terrorist movement. Even as the ceasefire began yesterday, the regime reserved the right to renew hostilities against "terrorists".

Even if the poorly armed and organised FSA topples the regime (no doubt after a long and bloody war), radical elements would have contributed to victory. Having earned a position in post-Assad Syria, they would actively pursue their political interests. The biggest losers in this transformation would be Syrians, but also their neighbours and moderates across the Arab world.

The argument for intervention, in part, is to prevent Syria from becoming another lawless source of terrorism analogous to Afghanistan or Somalia. The need to support the Syrian uprising, either by setting up "safe zones" (which would require significant ground and air intervention) or a full-scale ground intervention is in the region's interests.

If nothing is done to support the opposition fighters in Syria, we leave the FSA no option but to turn to extremists. Enable the Syrian people to defend themselves, to protect and develop a pluralistic civil society, and to see Syria reborn as a free, independent state. If we don't, the extremists will step in.

 

Ahmed Al Attar is an Emirati security affairs commentator

On Twitter: AhmedwAlAttar