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'Crisis in Syria: Implications for Homeland Security'

5:15 PM, Sep 10, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Tom Joscelyn delivered this testimony earlier today on Capitol Hill: 

syria

Chairman McCaul, Ranking Member Thompson and members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the potential threats to the U.S. emanating out of Syria. Obviously, the situation inside Syria is grim, with a despicable tyrant on one side and a rebellion compromised by al Qaeda and like-minded extremists on the other. In between these two poles are the people who originally rose up against tyranny in search of a better life. As we’ve seen time and again in this long war, Muslims embroiled in violence in faraway lands are often the first line of defense against an ideology and an organization that pose a direct threat to the West. There are many Syrian families who deserve the free world’s support today, beyond the prospect of limited airstrikes.

We should have no illusions about the nature of the Syrian war. What we are witnessing right now is a conflict that will have ramifications for our security in the West. The fighting in Syria and the terrorist campaign in Iraq are deeply linked, feeding off of one another in a way that increases the violence in both countries and potentially throughout the region. American interests outside of Syria have already been threatened by the war. We saw this late last year when al Qaeda repurposed a cell of Jordanian citizens who had fought in Syria for an attack inside their home country. They reportedly had the U.S. Embassy in their crosshairs and were planning a complex assault that involved other targets as well.

In my testimony today, I focus on the threat posed by al Qaeda and allied groups inside Syria, recognizing that al Qaeda did not start the Syrian rebellion. Moreover, there are many groups fighting on the side of the rebellion, making any clear-eyed analysis difficult. However, we can distill a number of observations.    

-       Al Qaeda and its extremist allies have grown much stronger since late 2011. Al Qaeda does not control the entire rebellion, which is made up of a complex set of actors and alliances. However, al Qaeda and its allies dominate a large portion of northern Syria and play a key role in the fighting throughout the rest of the country. These same al Qaeda-affiliated forces have fought alongside Free Syrian Army brigades. There is no clear geographic dividing line between the most extreme fighters and other rebels. For example, al Qaeda’s affiliates played a key role in the fighting in Latakia, an Assad stronghold on the coast, in early August. And within the past week we saw al Qaeda-affiliated fighters lead an attack in Malula, a Christian village not far from Damascus. These are just two examples chosen from many.

-       Al Qaeda has made the fight for Syria a strategic priority. Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, has repeatedly called on jihadists to concentrate their efforts on the fight against the Assad regime. But al Qaeda desires much more than Assad’s defeat. Al Qaeda wants to control territory and rule over others. This is consistent with al Qaeda’s desire to establish an Islamic Emirate in the heart of the Levant.  In his book, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, Zawahiri discussed at length the importance of creating such a state. Al Qaeda and associated groups have consistently pursued this goal in jihadist hotspots around the globe and this is especially true in Syria today.

-       Two known al Qaeda affiliates operate inside Syria: Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (or Levant). The leaders of both groups have sworn an oath of loyalty (bayat) to Ayman al Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s senior leadership. The heads of these two affiliates openly bickered over the chain-of-command in early April 2013. This forced Zawahiri to intervene, but the head of the ISIS initially rejected Zawahiri’s decision to have the two remain independently-operated franchises. It appears that some sort of compromise has been brokered, however, as the two al Qaeda affiliates fight alongside one another against their common enemies, including Kurdish forces in the north.

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