DAMASCUS, Syria -Syria”s recent clashes with militants have raised the prospect that the country — under U.S. pressure to keep insurgents out of Iraq — might also be facing a resurgence of Islamic extremists within its own borders.
Long-dormant Islamic-based groups that oppose the Syrian regime appear to be taking advantage of the government”s tight spot to reassert themselves, some political analysts and outside experts believe.
"The more you weaken the regime, the more you give the chance for opposition groups, including Islamic extremists, to regroup," said Nizar Hamzeh, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut who is an expert on Islamic political movements.
Syria has gone on the offensive recently, announcing measures to crack down on foreign fighters slipping into Iraq from its territory. The initiative appears to be an attempt to relieve some pressure from the United States and Iraq, who claim Syria has not done enough.
But the series of recent clashes has also highlighted that the extremist groups hold longtime hostility toward the Syrian regime too.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Al-Arabiya satellite channel, said the clashes show that al-Qaida "has indeed started its war against Syria."
Writing in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper Monday, he noted the irony that the Syrian government and Islamists have cooperated in the past.
But such cooperation was only "a marriage of convenience" to achieve certain goals such as confronting U.S. troops in Iraq, and groups such as al-Qaida consider Syria to be an "infidel" regime that needs to be changed, he noted.
"They may have slept in the same bed to fight the Americans but what”s important for al-Qaida is that it has entered the bedroom and secured a foothold there," he wrote.
There is little question that the militants seem willing to fight the Syrian regime.
On Monday, the Syrian government said its security forces had clashed with a band of militants — including former bodyguards of toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — on a resort mountain overlooking the Syrian capital, Damascus.
During the clash, security forces captured a Jordanian suspected militant, Sharif Ayed Saeed al-Smady, and the wife of his brother, said a Syrian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, as officials here routinely insist on.
In an interview with Syrian Television, the wife, Rihab Shahab, said the group was planning terror attacks in Syria and also was preparing to travel to Iraq using forged passports.
The al-Smady brothers, both wanted in Jordan in connection with an armed robbery, are linked to the Jund al-Sham militant group, authorities say.
The group is a well-known organization that was set up in Afghanistan by Syrian, Palestinian and Jordanian militants and has links to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida”s branch in Iraq.
The group also has claimed responsibility for an October attack on resort hotels in Sinai, Egypt, that killed 34 people, and for a March bombing at an international school in Qatar that killed a British resident.
On Sunday, the day before the mountain clash, the government claimed its forces had killed an Arab extremist near the Lebanese border and arrested 34 other foreign extremists. And last month, Syrian forces raided the hideout of a group of suspected terrorists near Damascus, killing two.
Before that raid, security forces had been monitoring a Jund al-Sham cell for several months and broke it up as the group planned to launch bomb attacks in Damascus, authorities said.
The burgeoning extremism in Syria "is a natural extension" of the increasing radicalism in the region after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, said Syrian legislator Mohammed al-Habash, who also heads the Center for Islamic Studies in Damascus.
Syria, a tightly controlled country, has for decades taken a tough line against Islamic extremism: Banning, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood since the early 1980s.
But Hamzeh said the crushing of the Brotherhood”s leadership then does not mean that its infrastructure was totally destroyed.