Seven years after 9/11, Washington policymakers remain fundamentally confused about the nature of Islamist extremism, the ideas behind it and the states that manipulate it. In few places is this problem more obvious than in the U.S. relationship with the secular Assad regime in Syria.
After the most recent iteration of the on-again off-again Washington-Damascus relationship--a meeting between the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice--Muallem described the meeting as a "positive beginning of a dialogue" while the state-controlled Syrian press heralded it as the United States coming to its senses and joining Syria in the fight against the common threat of radical Islamism. Never mind that some of those radical extremists threatening us are in the employ of the Assad regime and may well have been behind a recent bombing in Damascus that killed 17. Never mind, also, that the price that Syria is actively seeking for its promise of cooperation is the restoration of its influence on Lebanon--a dominion that it had to abandon in the aftermath of the Cedar Revolution of 2005.
Damascus has long epitomized a "nuanced" understanding of Islamist terrorism. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah have earned Syria's endorsement and significant material backing. Similarly, authorities in Damascus have fueled the insurgency in Iraq, a platform championed as praiseworthy "resistance to U.S. occupation." Under the watch of Syria's intelligence services, the most virulent radical jihadist networks have relied on Syria as a thoroughfare through which to channel streams of suicide bombers and other jihadists into Iraq. And while they have vociferously denied official leverage over such networks, Syrian authorities, when exposed, have displayed an astonishing ability to redirect radical jihadists to less conspicuous terrain such as to Northern Lebanon.
Damascus has nurtured jihadism as a bogeyman at home and abroad, an insurance policy against the specter of regime change, and a scapegoat for crimes otherwise traceable to its state security forces. To be sure, a dangerous strain of the Muslim Brotherhood has menaced the Assads from the shadows for many years. But since a Syrian military massacre in the Brotherhood enclave of Hama in 1982, their specter has been far fainter than the government has allowed.
The Syrian regime perfected its bifurcated approach to Islamist militancy over the course of its decades-long occupation of Lebanon. Groups such as Hezbollah were managed by the dominant Syrian security services. Other factions such as Asbat al-Ansar and the 2000 Dinniyeh group were deemed more useful when employed as proxies from controlled enclaves--Palestinian refugee camps and remote mountain refuges--to be unleashed at key tactical moments. The February 2005 assassination of Syrian rival and former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri occurred in an environment saturated with Syrian services, though in the pro-Syrian narrative it was a crime attributed to a jihadist cell.
In 2006, shortly after Damascus was forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon, a pro-Syrian faction delivered a Syrian-supplied arsenal to the Sunni Jihadist group Fatah al-Islam. The group, under the command of Jordanian terrorist Shakir al-Absi (who had just completed an unusually short stint in Syrian jail), launched a costly challenge to the struggling democratic government of Lebanon. Only American, Arab, and international support enabled the Lebanese armed forces to prevail.
In the Syrian government's lengthy record of employing radical jihadism, it has deemed the repercussions of this approach counterproductive only when its interests have in turn been targeted. And even then, attacks inside Syria have been intentionally recycled to tighten the regime's grip on Syrian society and to underline Syria's notional role in fighting global terrorism. But the most recent terrorist act committed in Damascus indicates that trafficking with jihadists has indeed become an increasingly risky mechanism for Syria.
Syria's leadership may have overestimated its ability to ride the tiger. It is not clear who bears responsibility for the terrorist attack in Damascus--whether it is Fatah al-Islam or jihadists destined for Iraq. Contemplating a return to Lebanon, Damascus lays the blame on Islamists in Northern Lebanon. Either way, it clearly marks the backfiring of Assad's manipulation of radical Islamists.
And what do all these machinations matter to Washington? Assad and his circle see a possible rapprochement with the United States playing into a new role for the regime: partnership in the war on terror. But Condoleezza Rice, her employees and her successors should remember that as Syria turns the full force of its tyrannical regime on one jihadist enemy, reinserting itself into the frail democracy that is Lebanon, it will continue to nurture Hamas, Hezbollah, and others who are little different. Syria's choice should be simple: an end to support for all terrorism and respect for Lebanon's independence, or America will sit on the sidelines and watch a dictatorship that lived by the sword die by it.
By Hassan Mneimneh