Seema Mustafa via Crimson Satellite

Seema Mustafa, who has just returned from Syria, reports on the increased presence of al Qaeda in Syria and its alliance on the ground with the armed opposition groups.

al-Qaeda, in the form of hard core Islamist groups, has started filtering into Syria — with suicide bomb attacks becoming a more frequent feature of the ongoing crisis.

The Syrian government has specific information of the “trickling in” of al Qaeda operatives into the country to join and help those opposing the Assad regime with violence. In recent weeks deaths and arrests in Syria of nationals originating from Jordan, Tunisia, Iraq and other neighbouring countries have been documented. Jordan, in recognition of this development, has tightened its borders with Syria in recent days to prevent the free movement of the al Qaeda terrorists.

Last month two foreign terrorists were killed, and one captured, in a shoot out in a dense Damascus suburb, Mezzeh. The three terrorists had occupied an empty apartment in the area and neighbours noted their presence. The landlord, living outside Syria, returned for a brief period but found that the locks had been changed and he could not enter the apartment. He reported the matter to the local authorities. Eventually there was a violent confrontation, with a security person and two terrorists getting killed. Later, a cache of arms and ammunition was recovered from the apartment.

Similarly, the conflict between the Syrian government and the armed militia that was confined to certain “trouble spots” like Homs and Dera, has spread in the form of bomb attacks to other parts of the country as well. The tight security imposed by the Syrian government has managed to contain the violence but recent attacks have the al Qaeda footprint, according to Syrian sources. Car bombs in Damascus, Aleppo have killed and injured hundreds. Plastic explosives have been used in these for high intensity, maximum damage impact. This has struck new fear in the residents who had never faced this kind of violence and as a Syrian Engineer in Damascus said, “we have started living in fear now, as they can strike anywhere.”

The Assad government has tightened security but is clearly worried about the heightened tensions as a result of the al Qaeda presence. This comes at a time when the Syrian government had started recording considerable success in disabling the armed militia operating in the border areas of the country. Syria’s vice Foreign Minister and former Permanent Representative to the United Nations Faisal Mekdad admitted that the al Qaeda elements had come into the country from Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and “although not yet present in large numbers, they are lethal and very determined.” He said they were using lethal weapons, and explosives in their attacks.

The armed militia in the border towns, according to the Syrian government, comprises also of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist Muslims groups as well as criminals, smugglers, drug addicts, and former prisoners wanted by the law. Mr Mekdad said that the actual presence of the opposition Istanbul Council is negligible in Syria with “their leaders never having been here on the ground.” Crime levels in the rest of Syria have increased as a result with more kidnappings for ransom, robberies, and murder being recorded. Syrians have started pointing out that Damascus , one of the safest cities in the world, is not so any more with the local Governor Houseen Makhloof, admitting that the levels of crime had increased dramatically.

The Syrians speak openly of external interference with the Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud echoing others in pointing out that while the larger support to the conflict was being provided by the United States, Israel and Western European Countries, the specific support to the armed groups was being provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Diplomatic sources spoke of evidence about centres being run by Turkey to train the militia, with a regular supply of sophisticated arms to the rebel groups.

Faisal Mekdad regretted the efforts of some countries to push Syria towards “sectarian” strife, with the government making all out efforts to retain the secular unity of the country. He said that Syria was being targeted only for its steadfast opposition to Israel and its support for the Palestinian cause. Everyone knows, he said, “that the moment Syria collapses the Palestinian cause will be finished.” He said that Syria was very clear that it had allowed Hamas leaders sanctuary as “a resistance, and not as a religious, force.” He was responding to a question on statements from Hamas individuals against the government. The Assad government is countering the propaganda of sectarian extremism led by ultra Sunni groups with undiluted secularism. Questions about religious identity are shunned by government leaders as rude and irrelevant, with great effort being put in underlining the unity of all sects and religious communities in the country. The Grand Mufti of Syria, a established Sunni cleric of the entire region, Sheikh Hassoun is clear that there can be no religious differences amongst Syrians. Referring to the Sunni extremists, he said, “we are Muslims not extremists. I ask them when you form a government and you have a choice between a qualified Christian or an unqualified Muslim for President, who will you choose?” The choice, he added, should be for a Just leader who ensures us our religious freedoms and Justice.

This sentiment, interestingly, finds a resonance across Syria with people on the streets asserting their unity, and openly criticizing those who want to turn the country into a sectarian state. There are over 60 per cent Sunnis in Syria and the majority remain critical of those “trying to make us another Libya.”