What seemed optimistic then appears misguided now, a New Year revealing the extent of al-Qa’ida’s resurgence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Jihadist extremists have effectively hijacked what began as a democratic uprising in Syria and are carving a swath across much of the rest of the region, from Mali and Libya in the west to Yemen and Afghanistan in the east, and beyond. Al-Qa’ida now dominates the rebels in Syria. In neighbouring Iraq, Sunni militants are fighting under the same black al-Qa’ida banner as the most extreme jihadists fighting in Syria. They have just seized almost full control of two of the country’s most important cities, Falluja and Ramadi, in western Anbar. In 2007, Anbar tribesmen led the so-called “Awakening” that enabled US forces to turn the tide against terrorism. Now it is al-Qa’ida threatening all that the Obama administration and its allies across the world have achieved — at enormous cost — when they got rid of Saddam Hussein.
Across the Middle East it is an unremittingly grim scenario. Jihadist militancy is being seen on an unprecedented scale, with cross-pollination taking place among fighting groups. The major Yemen-based al-Qa’ida affiliate is co-ordinating operations with Sunni militants in Lebanon, which has seen a series of devastating bomb blasts in Beirut. It is also working with jihadists in the strategic Sinai Peninsula, where militants have been on the offensive since the upheavals that ousted the Mubarak regime. Hopes of defeating the jihadists in Yemen are no longer regarded as realistic. Amid the upheavals in Libya, the largely ungoverned south is now a safe haven for jihadists, potentially to attack targets in Europe. This is a very worrying development. Similarly, fears are that the forces now leading the uprising against Syria’s Assad dictatorship could use it as a base to attack Israel as well as Europe.
According to a study this week by the Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, there are 6000-7000 foreign fighters in Syria, overwhelmingly with jihadist forces. Most are from Arab or Islamic nations, many from western Europe, and an estimated 100 from Australia. The concern is, as the study puts it, that “they are liable to continue terrorist and subversive activities in their countries of origin when they return home”.
Syria is proving a fertile ground for the jihadist militant resurgence. The savage inhumanity of the murderous Assad dictatorship has inevitably bred extreme opposition. It has proved a powerful recruiting tool for al-Qa’ida. There seems little doubt this trend will continue as long as Bashar al-Assad clings to power. His outrages have allowed the jihadists to effectively overwhelm the calculated Western strategy of channelling support to the moderate Syrian opposition, leaving Mr Obama and America’s allies with an almost impossible choice between backing a loathsome dictatorship or allowing a takeover by al-Qa’ida and potentially a replay of the Afghanistan conflict. Tony Abbott’s homespun depiction of “baddies versus baddies” in Syria, although ridiculed by some quarters, rings true. Afghanistan’s future is uncertain, with no assurance that after US-led coalition forces leave it will not again be taken over by the Taliban and its al-Qa’ida allies. It could again become a base for global terrorism. Iraq is a clear warning of what could happen. In Iraq post-Saddam, the new leaders failed to conclude an agreement that would have allowed a US-led coalition force to remain after the bulk of foreign forces left. Similarly, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is stalling over an agreement that would keep a coalition force — including some Australians — there after the end of the year. The jihadist resurgence is also being seen in the heart of Africa, with oil-rich Nigeria, a key Western ally, under attack by al-Qa’ida-linked Boko Haram terrorists, and al-Shabaab militants in Somalia continuing to attack there and across its borders into Kenya.
In immediate terms, however, it is the gravity of the challenge posed by the proliferation of extremist jihadist militancy in Syria that poses the greatest threat. At no time since the civil war started has the need been greater for the international community to agree on a coherent policy that will achieve the political change needed to starve extremists of support. A critical opportunity to do this arises later this month at the scheduled Syrian peace conference in Switzerland. If al-Qa’ida is not to emerge the big winner in Syria, Assad must be persuaded to make significant concessions. He must be left in no doubt about just how isolated and reviled he is. That is why the visit to him by members of the Australian WikiLeaks Party was naive, silly and potentially dangerous. Offering “solidarity” was foolish in the extreme. It played into the despot’s hands. The world will pay a terrible price if the jihadist resurgence is not dealt with effectively. Mr Obama should not have declared the global war on terrorism over. It is far from won, as events of the past month clearly show. The challenge to nations everywhere posed by Islamist extremism has seldom been greater. It must be confronted and dealt with. And the task begins in Syria.
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This article was written by the editorial board of the Australian.