Will Syria enable al-Qaeda’s resurgence in the Middle East?

By Bilal Y. Saab – The following analysis initially appeared in Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, a shorter version was republished on CNN, Fareed Zakaria – GPS.


With evidence of jihadist activity in Syria surfacing over the past several months, the issue now is not so much the likelihood of al-Qaeda’s presence in the Syrian conflict, but the nature of its involvement and the threat it poses to Syria’s future, regional security, and Western interests in the Middle East.


In a recent analysis in Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst on al-Qaeda in Syria, I revealed evidence of the multiplying jihadist cells operating in the country. Indeed, based on secondary Arabic sources and recent interviews in Europe and the Middle East with Western and Arab intelligence officers and analysts working on Syria, the Syrian battlefield now appears awash with al-Qaeda-linked jihadist cells. And even if some of these cells do not have a clear connection to al-Qaeda’s franchises in the region, or to the central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they have the same goals and operate in the same religious universe. The reality is that there is money, there are men, there is dedication, and there is some awareness on the part of al-Qaeda that the crisis in Syria presents an opportunity to expand in the Levant.


But for the jihadists’ presence to morph from a disorganized and cellular structure to a harmonious, powerful insurgency, it will need a charismatic leader capable of unifying the various cells and providing a clear sense of direction.


No less important for the potential establishment of an al-Qaeda insurgent movement in Syria is a clear commitment by al-Qaeda’s senior leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, to invest and create a durable foothold in Syria. While al-Zawahiri issued a statement in February calling for jihad in Syria (this statement being much far combative than his remarks in July 2011), his level of commitment to the conflict is still questionable. The al-Qaeda leader has a clear interest in fulfilling his organization’s mission in the Levant, but little suggests that he has instructed his operatives and followers to go “all-in” on Syria. Perhaps he is not in a position to do so given the aggressive global campaign against his organization and the massive setbacks it has had to deal with over the past 2 to 3 years with the killing of Osama bin Laden and several other terrorist masterminds. But if he starts making more statements on Syria, singles out a particular jihadist group, sends a veteran operative or a close advisor to unify the ranks and supervise jihadist activity in Syria, and instructs al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to provide further financial and logistical assistance to the jihadis in Syria, it would suggest al-Zawahiri has set his sights firmly on Syria.


Yet even if al-Zawahiri does not commit, and no unifying leader emerges, the course of events in Syria could be enough for jihadists in Syria to establish a more solid foothold. “They will figure it out eventually,” one Lebanese military intelligence officer in Beirut told me. With Islamist radicalization broadening across the country, sectarian warfare escalating between Sunnis and Alawites and Christians taking up arms for the first time to protect themselves, the conflict could eventually cause the complete disintegration of the country if outside powers do not intervene. Under such anarchy, al-Qaeda has tended to flourish, at least if the Iraq experience is any guide. “What we’re seeing in Syria is another Iraq in the making, I swear,” lamented one Jordanian intelligence officer.


Still, knowing what kind of presence al-Qaeda has in Syria is one thing, but devising a strategy and mustering the necessary political will to combat it – or at least contain it – is a different matter altogether. Terrorist cells are usually countered through a sophisticated law enforcement and counter-terrorism strategy, the backbone of which are good intelligence. A terrorist insurgent presence, in contrast, has to be fought with a comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign that operates in parallel with a state-building exercise. Far more resources go into the second strategy given the formidable long-term threat that insurgencies pose, but that does not mean that the threat posed by cells is less severe or easier to counter. Cells are harder to break because they live and plan away from public eyes and have focused and limited goals. The authorities can hit, miss, but still learn when tackling insurgencies. However, with terrorist cells, the margin of error is almost zero.


Al-Qaeda’s potentially changing status in Syria poses challenges to those who have an interest in countering the group, namely the Syrian government, regional states, and Western powers. The challenge is that any effective strategy to fight the jihadists, given the mixed and fluid status of their presence, has to incorporate elements of both counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. The problem is that under the present circumstances, neither strategy can be properly implemented given the absence of Western boots on the ground in Syria, the Syrian government’s differing priorities from the West (its first and foremost goal is to crush the uprising, not fight al-Qaeda), and the inability and/or unwillingness of regional states to pursue a more aggressive policy on Syria and enter Syrian territory to hunt down terrorist networks. The result is that al-Qaeda has been allowed by default to operate freely in this relatively open Syrian space using the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey as a major transit point.


With the total absence of any domestic or foreign force able to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing a strategic base in Syria for the entire Levant, it is reasonable to assume that it is only a matter of time before another al-Qaeda insurgent movement is born in the Middle East. Those who believe al-Qaeda is dead should closely watch events in Syria: if Ayman al-Zawahiri plays his cards right, the terrorist organization could be reborn in that part of the world.




Interview with Daniel L. Byman on the Syrian spillover

By Bilal Y. Saab – Despite the fact that things are getting worse in Syria, U.S. and Western appetite for military intervention is still non-existent. Is it time for Plan B then? Plan B is the containment and management of the Syrian civil war. I know, easier said than done, right? The policy was tried in Iraq, the only difference however is that there were American boots on the ground in Iraq to implement the policy and obviously there are none today in Syria.



To learn a little bit more about the prospects of this Plan B and how realistic and challenging it is, I talk to Dan Byman, a good friend and a former Brookings colleague. One of the nicest guys I have known in Washington, Dan is also a prolific and intelligent Middle East security and terrorism analyst. He is currently a senior fellow and the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. In June 2007, Dan and Ken Pollack teamed up (as they often do) and produced Things Fall apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press). They also released an analysis on August 10 in Foreign Policy entitled The Syrian spillover. It is required reading.



1- Rarely do morality and material strategic interests come together when great powers contemplate intervening in civil wars. Syria happens to be one of those examples. And yet the United States has opted to stay out of Syria for several reasons. Obviously things keep getting worse in that part of the world. Do you think the United States has been so cautious on Syria to the point where it is now undermining its own strategic interests in the Middle East, or is it that on balance, the Obama administration has been wise not to intervene militarily?


On military intervention, much depends on how it would be done. A limited intervention would probably fail and could be a disaster for the United States. And I do not think there is significant domestic, regional, or Syrian popular support for a more massive U.S. intervention at this time. I’d favor a more aggressive effort to aid the Syrian opposition as one way to help yet not stray beyond what is realistic.


2- U.S. President Barack Obama has explicitly stated that his red line on Syria is usage by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons against its domestic opponents. In essence, Obama is telling us that he is willing to throw caution out the window and disregard all the risks and costs of war that this administration seems to have studied very carefully the moment Assad uses chemical weapons against the rebels or protestors. Can you explain to us why? Do we have reason to question the credibility of this threat given that it is still election season in America and this president does not want to go on another military adventure in the Middle East?


I believe, but do not know, that the Obama administration is trying to head off one possible crisis that might increase pressure for a more massive intervention. I think the hope is to deter Syria and, in so doing, avoid an increased demand for intervention. It would be too much to guess their response based on their rhetoric – much depends on the circumstances surrounding use.

3- In the absence of military intervention and under conditions of civil war intensification, Plan B for Syria is containment and management of the civil war. The United States tried to do it in Iraq. Some say it succeeded others say it failed. You and Ken Pollack wrote about the Iraqi spillover in Things Fall Apart and now you just released another analysis in Foreign Policy on the Syrian spillover. Are the challenges of containing and managing the spillover in Syria more formidable than they were in Iraq? Will the potential containment exercise be conducted under the policy framework of “leading from behind” (working with US regional allies on a logistical, political, and financial level) or will the United States have to put some boots on the ground?


Spillover with Syria is quite real. In Iraq, the civil war fell in its violence after our book was released, so (thankfully) many of our arguments could not be fully tested. However, because of Iraq the region was already tense and the spillover could happen more quickly. The two most vulnerable countries are Lebanon and Iraq as they are less stable than were Iraq’s neighbors. I think the overall risk of problems is higher. Washington will be reluctant to put boots on the ground in a permanent way (though training is quite possible).


4- How much of a problem is Russia in Syria? How high do you rank that obstacle compared to Assad’s repression, sectarian dynamics in the country, Iranian assistance, domestic politics in Washington, etc…


Russia’s support for Syria is both psychologically important to the regime and an impediment to intervention as many states want UN approval for any aggressive measures, and Russia would block this. In my view, this is an important but second concern given the dynamics of the region.


5- It may be only a matter of time before another al-Qaeda insurgent movement is born in the Middle East because of what is happening in Syria. So far al-Qaeda has had a cellular presence but it is nearing an insurgency status. I’d love to get your take on Al-Qaeda in Syria. Are you a little surprised that the terrorist organization has not gone “all in” on Syria given the tremendous opportunity presented by the crisis?


Al-Qaeda is following an old model in Syria: work with locals, gradually coopt and lead them, and then form its own movement. So far it has gone from “non-existent” in the opposition to “negligible” to “only a small part.” Its credibility grows while that of the United States and other friends of the opposition shrink. Al-Qaeda central, however, is weak, so its ability to control this movement is limited. But it is an opportunity that could grow.





Lebanon’s large-scale wind energy market

By Salah Tabbara – For a small country Lebanon has significant wind resources, and while other Arab countries are planning on relying on nuclear energy to meet their present and future power needs this tiny Levantine nation can invest in a much cleaner and safer source for power: wind.



In many wide-ranging areas average wind speeds are in excess of 9-10 meters per second per year and, in many other areas, average wind speeds are in excess of 6.5 to 7 meters per second, the speed at which wind farms are known to be economically viable. For a country that mostly relies on excessively costly fuel oil and diesel, wind power provides a cost effective and environmentally friendly means to enhance our energy security.


Lebanon is a highly dense country with relatively high per capita energy use that is currently satisfied by expensive and environmentally damaging diesel and fuel oil. More than 97% of Lebanese energy needs are imported, creating a large burden on family incomes as well as an energy system that is very sensitive to oil price fluctuations. To escape this truly dire predicament, the Lebanese government is currently planning, through its Ministry of Energy Policy Paper of 2010, a shift to natural gas and the penetration of renewable energy up to 12% of the energy mix by the year 2020. A total of 60-100 MW of wind is envisioned in the near term, however Lebanon can make much more use of wind power. Here is how.


The national wind atlas of the country, published by the UNDP-CEDRO project, put to rest the debate on wind power potential and estimated that Lebanon has at least 1500 MW of wind power potential to make use of, with an average estimated at 6100 MW. To put this in perspective, the overall operational conventional power plants in Lebanon today have a nominal capacity of 2023 MW.Yet to put this power to good public use, an effective legislative and regulatory framework is required, and it can be found in the country’s Law 462.


Law 462 came out in 2002 and called for the establishment of the National Regulatory Authority for the electricity sector, an authority that, alone, is entitled to license independent power producers. Ten years on, this law has not been implemented for various reasons, most of which touch on where political and decision-making power lies. Yet not only was the Law not implemented, an alternative was not given. One alternative is found in Law 775 (which by no means is perfect but is evidently better than no law at all) where the Council of Ministers is turned into the Regulatory Authority.


Without this law or some alternative, Lebanese cannot enjoy the benefits of wind power and no national wind power projects can be launched in the country. But waiting indefinitely is not an option. Therefore, Law 462 and its amendment or some alternative is bound to be established and the market is readying itself for this eventuality as the Council of Ministers have repeatedly stated since 2009.


Before the publication of the wind atlas, there were and still are Lebanese entrepreneurs who secured their respective land and began their due diligence in the form of putting up near hub-height wind anemometers and other pre-requisites for wind farm development. Some have even finished their studies and will be ready to plug a wind farm into the grid within 14 months should the green light or license be given.


The market in Lebanon is therefore technically ready but the central government needs to act first. Lebanon’s wind potential will not make it worthwhile to establish local manufacturing for the turbines, yet there may be other system components that can be locally sourced, such as foundation and tower elements, electronic components and cabling, and related civil works. Local employment is envisioned through the process of wind farm development and operation.


To start the process a licensing procedure is required. This procedure must be set by the Lebanese Regulatory Authority and it must include a safety protocol, construction timetables, environmental impact assessment acceptance, generation forecasting protocols and so forth. These need to be established, and it is hoped that the Regulatory Authority will hit the road running and ameliorate successful cases from outside Lebanon. We don’t need to invent the wheel but we definitely need to make it start turning.



Salah Tabbara is the General Manager at AlBina s.a.l. and acting Chairman at Sustainable Environmental Solutions – Beirut, Lebanon. Mr. Tabbara is on the board of several businesses and cultural associations in Lebanon.