Last week, Damascus was rocked by a bomb that left more than 50 dead and scores wounded in what was probably the worst terrorist attack since the beginning of the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime just over a year ago. The insurgents accused the regime of staging the horrifying massacre in order to stain the opposition’s reputation while the regime blamed the opposition and claimed that the insurgency has become an al-Qaeda tool bent on spreading jihadist values across the Middle East.
It is difficult to determine which side is right since both have the motive and means of perpetrating the attack. The Syrian regime is terrorist by nature, having already exported terrorism to Lebanon, Israel and the Persian Gulf. It could easily bomb downtown Damascus, should it choose to do so. Yet, it is widely known that al-Qaeda has been slowly overtaking the Syrian rebellion and may ultimately emerge as the real winner of the bloodshed in Syria.
The key to understanding the developments in Syria is Abd al-Karim Belhaj, an al-Qaeda terrorist turned senior Libyan military leader. Belhaj was apprehended by the CIA in Afghanistan and turned over to Muammar Qaddafi. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the deposed ruler, decided to pardon him. However, immediately upon his release, Belhaj organized a failed attempt on Gaddafi’s life a few months before the Arab Spring spread though the country.
Today, he spends much of his time in Turkey, where he promotes al-Qaeda’s takeover of the Syrian revolution. Belhaj may be contributing to al-Qaeda’s cause in Syria by offering captured Qaddafi weapon stores to the rebels and by prompting his old colleagues, al-Qaeda’s operatives in Iraq, to focus their attention on Syria.
Belhaj, however, would not be able to operate without the blessing of regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Saudi support for the Salafist operative is easy to understand. It has been considering supporting Salafist anti-Syrian activity prior to the events of the bloody Syrian Spring. Saudi anger was sparked by the assassination in 2005 of then Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri – a Riyadh ally. Currently, the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli is one of the main Salafist strongholds in the Middle East, deeply influenced by the Saudis, and serves as a counterbalance to Hezbollah’s (i.e. Shia’s) hold on the Bekaa valley and southern Lebanon.
Two weeks ago, Lebanon’s pro-Assad government announced it had intercepted a ship carrying weapons on its way to Tripoli, which originated in Libya. The ship and its cargo were apparently bound for Syria, where they would reach the rebel forces. Informal reports claimed the ship was financed by the fellow Sunnite emirate Qatar and the Gulf States.
While it is natural for Saudi Arabia to support the Salafists in order to contain the advent of Muslim Brotherhood and the Shia in the region, it is less clear why Turkey, a pillar of Muslim Brotherhood support and a member of NATO, would harbor anyone promoting al-Qaeda and its rule in the country next door. One can only assume that in in the struggle against Assad all is deemed kosher.
Al-Qaeda’s takeover of Syria is not the only plausible scenario for Syria’s future. The country may well splinter into its many religious and ethnic communities, which may, in the end, prove to be the solution to contain al-Qaeda.