US Foreign Policy Toward Syria and the Fertile Ground for Jihadi Recruitment
Salafi Jihadis (those who may or may not follow Wahhabi doctrine who take faith to be a constant battle – in the military sense) are always in search for a galvanizing cause. In the 1980s, it was Afghanistan where Jihadis traveled from around the world to join a fight that Reagan and King Fahd described as holy. It was the birth of a dangerous movement: Saudi Arabia was so keen on pleasing the Americans with its participation that any Saudis would get a free plane ticket and expense money if he were to travel to Pakistan to join the mujahideen. (Bin Laden, coming from an affluent family, did not need a free plane ticket, of course).
In the Bush era, the cause became Iraq. But in Iraq, the US was fighting the Jihadis while the GCC countries had a schizophrenic policy: they wanted to help Bush, but their populations were sympathetic to the cause. The US required that all GCC countries refrain from helping the rebels there. The Syrian regime played both roles: sometimes smuggling fighters into Iraq to sabotage the US occupation, and sometimes capturing fighters to impress the American government.
Today, the cause is Syria. The Muslim (or Islamist) causes of Kashmir or Chechnya never took off: the two are largely local or nationalist revolts. Chechnya did not capture the imagination of the Muslim youth, but Syria is now what Afghanistan was in the 1980s. All fanatics see the world in striking terms; it is a fight by Muslims against an infidel regime. Bashar plays the infidel twice: once for presiding over a regime that is seen as secular, and again because he is an Alawi, although he tells people that he practices as a Sunni – how convenient.
For the uniting Islamists of the world, it is not about repression. The Middle East region is filled with repressive regimes. But Syria is a lucrative business and the struggle has material rewards. Let us not forget that early Muslim fighters in the times of the great conquest were not purely motivated by rewards of heaven or rewards of spiritual fulfillment – even Mohammad knew the significance of material rewards here on earth for the Muslim fighters.
Syria now has the promise of what Afghanistan once presented: it is a fight that is sanctioned by the governments. They can go there and join a fight and establish a little or bigger Islamic emirate and emulate the lives of the early companions (as seen by those dogmatic fanatics who read history through the prism of Wahhabi strictness). Better yet: they can now receive financial compensation that only seems to be getting more lucrative.
The stories of the rewards of heaven for Muslim fighters or even terrorists are highly exaggerated. Only a small number of hard-core fanatics who wind up joining terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda may be drawn in by the rulings of their leader regarding the promise of paradise. But for most, it is about earthly rewards, in the political and material sense.
For the unemployed youth of rural Syria, or for the young fighters who graduated from an early war in Iraq, the fight is about a political order and about the desire to establish an Islamic order. After Egypt, the talk of the restoration of the caliphate is now more serious than before for the Salafis (and for the Muslim Brotherhood which miserably hides behind the vague formulation of a “civil state”).
To be sure, there is a real repressive regime in Syria. But the fight is no longer in the hands of the regime and its opponents. It is another proxy war reminiscent of the proxy wars of the Cold War. Those fighters (just like the mujahideen from an earlier era and from another century) are now mere tools in a game controlled by the West and executed diligently by Saudi Arabia and Qatar: both countries want to prove obedience to the American master.
It was written that the elder brother of the two Boston bombers uploaded videos about the fighting in Syria, hailing the mujahideen against the “infidel regime.” It is rather ironic that Obama and the Boston bombers are on the same side in Syria. The US reassures the public – not that the public is paying attention – that its non-lethal aid and its non-lethal military aid (and the last category is rather recent) to Syrian rebels are only going to the “right people.” But who are the right people among the Syrian rebels and how does one tell them from the wrong people? Is it possible that the war in Syria may produce another organization like al-Qaeda and that CIA men years from now will once again roam the lands of Syria to try buy back some advanced weapons that fell into the hands of the wrong people?
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