For 16 months now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been blaming "foreign-backed terrorists" for the uprising that threatens to unseat him. It's an old scare tactic, one he used 11 years ago, albeit in subtler form, when he referred to the activists behind the so-called Damascus Spring as "a foreign agent acting on behalf of an outside power" -- and one that sounds suspiciously like Muammar al-Qaddafi's attempt to pin his own uprising on international terrorism, Osama bin Laden, and drugs. But as the Syrian rebellion descends into all-out civil war, it is becoming clear that there is a grain of truth to Assad's claims.
In recent weeks, alarming developments -- including videos of al Qaeda fighters released on jihadi websites, eyewitness reports from CNN's Ivan Watson, and testimony from two European photographers who were kidnapped in Syria by militants from Chechnya, Pakistan, and Bangladesh -- suggest that foreign jihadists have indeed joined the struggle against Assad's regime. And these aren't just isolated events: The New York Times reports that at least three al Qaeda affiliates currently operate in Syria, and, according to intelligence estimates cited by Seth Jones, associate director of Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center, at least 200 operatives are fighting with or alongside rebel groups.
To be sure, most rebels are Syrian nationals and the vast majority, no doubt, are not sympathetic to al Qaeda's cause. Of course, that won't stop Assad from attempting to tar the entire revolt based on the presence of a comparatively small contingent of fighters. The Syrian president, however, shouldn't be surprised that there are foreign fighters in his country -- he invited them in, after all. The only new development is that some of these fighters appear to have turned against their erstwhile patron.
A notorious state sponsor of terrorism, the Baathist regime in Damascus has long tolerated the presence of foreign militants as part of its regional strategy. Indeed, an impressive list of militant organizations, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, Fatah al-Intifada, and, until recently, Hamas, has maintained bases or been headquartered in Syria. But while some of these relationships have soured as a result of the Syrian government's response to the uprising, the fallout from Assad's meddling in Iraq and Lebanon will contribute most to his undoing.
Following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Syria notoriously became a transit route for foreign fighters looking to wage jihad against coalition forces. According to records seized by U.S. forces in Sinjar, Iraq, more than 600 fighters were smuggled across the Syria-Iraq border between August 2006 and August 2007 to join the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an umbrella organization of Iraqi insurgents affiliated with al Qaeda.
West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, which analyzed and published the records, reported that roughly 40 percent of these fighters hailed from Saudi Arabia, with another 20 percent coming from Libya. The remaining fighters trickled in from Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, and a smattering of other Middle Eastern countries. Despite their diverse backgrounds, however, they all eventually converged in Syria, where they either entered training camps on the Syrian side of the border or proceeded directly on to Iraq. The process was orchestrated by at least 95 Syrian "coordinators" who specialized in recruiting suicide bombers and foreign fighters from specific regions, according to Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.