October 25, 2003

Al-Qaeda Inc. The Algerian Salafist

Al-Qaeda Inc.

The Algerian Salafist movement officially comes on board with al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda thus continues to formalize its conglomeration strategy vis-a-vis having other Islamic radical groups formally move under its umbrella. The U.S. reacts to the Salafist news.

Syria Watch

In other Middle East news, Syrian FM Farouq al Shara is sketching out possible deterrent scenarios vis-a-vis Israel.

Elsewhere on Syria, check out this Neil MacFarquhar NYT piece from yesterday. Let me just say that, and not to question Mr. MacFarquhar's motives, this piece rang pretty hyperbolic to me.

There was perhaps a bit of an undercurrent of 'the U.S.-going-into-Iraq-radicalizing-the-region' bias underpinning this story and its prominent treatment by the NYT. I'm not an expert on religious dynamics in Syria--but I've followed trends in that country pretty closely.

And I'm confident that this article, at least to the extent that readers believe a significant Islamic resurgence is underway in Syria, exaggerates the situation there to the point of providing an inaccurate picture to the readership of the NYT.

As an example of said Islamic resurgence, MacFarquhar trots out a firebrand mullah from a working class district and, additionally, writes:

"Friday Prayers draw overflowing crowds. More heavily veiled women and bearded men jostle unharried among city pedestrians. Family restaurants on the outskirts of Damascus do not serve alcohol, and one fashionable boutique even sports a sign advertising Islamically modest bathing suits."

Busy Friday prayers? How unbusy were they before? A few "more" chadoors in evidence amidst the pedestrian traffic? Booze-less "family" restaurants? And a store selling slightly more modest bathing suits than this one?

This an Islamic resurgence makes?

Nah. Don't believe the hype (and don't add this to any checklist you may have about all those negative ramifications stemming from the Iraq intervention).

These Syrian intellectuals have it about right:

"Some Syrian intellectuals say militant Islam has peaked. They say the government manipulates the religious resurgence as a safety valve, periodically loosening the restraints to see who is involved so they can be monitored.

"The regime on this issue continues to put the question ina very drastic way, `It's either us or a Taliban government,' " said one Syrian intellectual."

Oh, and to the extent this is true the Syrians are playing a very dangerous game.

"Such experts say the government opened the doors to jihad in Iraq to see who would go, detaining those who made it back alive. Islamic activists make up the biggest block of political prisoners, human rights activists say.

Syrian observers also attribute a heavy government hand to the fatwa that the grand mufti issued last spring sanctioning suicide attacks against the American forces in Iraq, a ruling that his son now describes as a mistake."

By the way, and I say this as someone who appreciates the complexities and subtleties of the role Syria plays in the neighborhood--don't believe Syrian reps on Fox news that blame any Syrian infiltrations into Iraq on "porous" borders. A goat didn't cross that border when Bashar's father controlled it. The son could likely ensure the same if he really wanted to.

I'm worried Bashar Assad, on some level, thinks he can play a calibrated spigot on/off game in terms of guerrilla infilitrations in Iraq from Syria (much like the calibrated Hezbollah activity in s. Lebanon against Israel). Assad might calculate that, ultimately, the U.S. will pull out of Iraq and his occasional support to guerrilla forces would have preserved his hard-line, pan-Arab rejectionist credentials.

Likely a dumb move. Iraq might very well still prove a success. And regardless, Bush isn't pulling out anytime soon (see "long, hard slog").

Posted by Gregory at October 25, 2003 10:27 PM

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