BEIRUT, Lebanon, AP – The Syrian president warns of growing al-Qaida presence in neighboring Lebanon, and the state media in his closed nation quickly breaks news of gunbattles between police and Islamic militants in the Syrian capital.
Syria is touting what it calls an increasing threat of Islamic extremists, fueled by popular anger over the violence in Iraq. But opponents of President Bashar Assad’s regime claim it’s a dodge with a number of aims: to score support with the United States, to defuse international pressure and to provide a pretext for Syrian meddling in neighboring Lebanon.
Washington has long labeled Damascus as subscribing to terrorism — mainly for its support of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrilla movement in Lebanon, which is not connected to al-Qaida and is its enemy. More recently, the U.S. has pressed Syria to end its influence in Lebanon and stop the flow of Arab militants into Iraq to join the insurgency.
In an interview published Monday in the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, Assad insisted his country was a victim of terrorism.
“All Arab governments have the same worry now, particularly after the Iraq war. There is extremism, there is terrorism, and everyone is suffering from it,” he said.
Assad warned that al-Qaida’s influence has grown in Lebanon ever since Syrian forces ended their decades-long presence in the country last year.
“This has become a reality,” he said. “When Syria was present in Lebanon, al-Qaida was there, but in a very limited way.”
He also said Islamic militants that Syrian security forces have been fighting were using Lebanon as a refuge, since “it’s closest and easiest, and the roads are mountainous.”
On June 2, security forces battled with militants in the heart of the capital, Damascus, near the Defense Ministry. Four militants and a police officer were killed.
Syrian state media immediately announced the violence and showed the slain gunmen and captured weapons on TV — unusual coverage in a country where the government tightly controls the media and security issues are almost never discussed.
It was the latest in a series of clashes with militants in recent years in Syria. The government has said the militants are “takfiris” — referring to the radical Islamic ideology that brands all opponents, including fellow Muslims, as “kafirs,” or infidels.
It has said some of the fighters belong to the group Jund al-Sham, or the Soldiers of Syria, established in Afghanistan by Syrians, Palestinians and Jordanians with links to slain al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Assad told Al-Hayat most of the militants in his country were in small groups not connected to al-Qaida or any wider organization, though some had returned home after fighting alongside insurgents in Iraq. “They combine hatred of the Americans for killing Iraqis with religious extremism … (and the belief) that they must fight all those who are not like them,” he said.
Syria is a major crossing point for militants from around the Arab world — including Syria and Lebanon — to slip into Iraq to fight in the insurgency. In the face of U.S. pressure, Damascus has insisted it is doing all it can to stop the infiltrations but the long desert border is too difficult to seal.
Syria’s secular regime has dealt harshly with Islamic fundamentalists in the past. Most notably, Assad’s father Hafez Assad launched a crackdown that killed thousands in the city of Hama in 1982.
Mohammed Habash, head of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus and a Syrian legislator, said the Islamist threat to Syria was real, with militants’ angry over its tentative moves to cooperate with the United States.0
“Syria is in the eye of the storm, and the whole region is burning,” he said. “It is only logical that such (militant) cells emerge.”
But opponents of the Assad regime question official accounts of the militant attacks.
A former Syrian politician who is now a pro-democracy dissident living abroad said he believes Assad’s regime manipulates militant groups and uses them as bargaining chips in its dealings with the international community.
“The purpose of this is to win international backing so that they (the authorities) can tell the international community, ‘Look, we have terrorism and we are resisting it,'” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he has relatives in Syria and fears for their safety.
That view is also supported by Lebanese opponents of Syria, whose army withdrew from Lebanon in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri last year. Syrian officials have been implicated in the killing, but Damascus denies involvement.
“We know that the militants infiltrating the Lebanese borders from Syria are the same militants the government of Damascus has been sending to Iraq for the past four, five years under the claim they belong to al-Qaida,” Saad Hariri, the slain Hariri’s son, who leads the anti-Syrian parliament majority, said in a television interview earlier this year.
Lebanese authorities in January charged 13 people with planning terrorist attacks and said they had ties to al-Qaida.
Documents captured from al-Qaida in Afghanistan and released by the U.S. reveal Islamic extremists’ hatred for Assad’s minority Alawite regime, calling on Syrians to rise up in jihad, or holy war, against him. But they also express disappointment with militants for failing to do so.
The Assad family is Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam with about three million adherents in Syria, where Sunni Muslims form the majority of the population of 18.5 million. The Alawites hold many influential posts in the military and the intelligence services.