Middle East

Does al-Qaeda have a foothold in Syria?

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Media captionPaul Wood reports from Syria on al-Qaeda's influence in the country

Amid growing concern among some Western officials about al-Qaeda's involvement in the Syrian uprising, the BBC's Paul Wood - who has been back inside Syria - assesses the influence of Islamists in Syria's anti-government protests.

"People are fed up with journalists," says the Free Syrian Army's Lt Col Muleldine al-Zein. "We are not extremists, although you try to portray us as such."

He adds bitterly: "The West still supports the regime as far as I am concerned. The US could take him out in a week, but they don't want democracy for us. I don't know why. They want the country to collapse."

Outside, in this small Syrian town, the daily pro-democracy protest is going on.

"Men and women together," the colonel says, presenting the fact as another testament to the group's moderation. Speakers make the usual calls to remember the revolution's martyrs.

There are the regular chants against President Bashar al-Assad: "The Assad family are thieves" is always popular.

Despite the colonel's remarks, the United States does want the Assad regime to fall.

It is one of the small ironies of the Syrian uprising that the US and al-Qaeda are on the same side here.

Both want the regime's overthrow. Still, the US and other Western governments worry about who might replace Mr Assad.

The al-Nusra Front emerged earlier this year in customary fashion, with an internet video. The Front for the Defence of the Syrian People, to give them their full title, say they are jihadis who have returned from other wars to fight here.

The video was illustrated with shots of tough-looking men training with weapons, somewhere in the desert.

"We bring glad tidings to the Islamic nation," their spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Gulani, announced on the video.

"We are Syrian mujahideen. We are back from the various jihad fronts to restore Allah's rule upon the Earth and avenge our people's violated honour and spilled blood."

We do not know if this video is genuine, but - another irony of Syria - this kind of thing serves the propaganda interests of both the global jihad movement and the Assad regime. Regardless, some outside observers believe the men of the Nusra Front do indeed represent the future in Syria.

Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer who studies Islamist militants, says: "The numbers were quite small in the beginning, but I think it has grown in this time."

He goes on: "The point is that the hard element of the opposition, the armed, the combat-experienced part of the opposition that has come up from Libya or Iraq not only are at the vanguard, but are also pushing out all other forms of opposition.

"The only opposition that we are seeing in Syria at the moment is not peaceful protest. It is characterised by extreme use of violence."

Not al-Qaeda

The recent car bombings in Damascus, which killed 55 people , are the result, says the regime. They blame the attacks on Islamists, maybe al-Qaeda. The Americans fear that might be true.

Image caption The Syrian people have been calling for outside help at their protests

One reason to think it is that Syria's democratic uprising has rescued al-Qaeda from a crisis. Peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt made them look irrelevant. Now, perhaps, they are back in the game.

But are they? And if so, to what extent? We met Abu Laila, the commander of a small rebel group outside Homs. He was perfectly suited to Syrian government propaganda.

He bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Osama Bin Laden - so much so, he told us, that he was usually asked to leave the room when foreign journalists arrived.

Sitting in a room containing Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade roadside bombs, he says he did, in fact, fight in Iraq. This was a matter of defending his tribe which is found in both countries, he said. He met al-Qaeda people in Iraq, he goes on.

But, as it emerges during our conversation, he does not like al-Qaeda. He fears them and what they would do in Syria. And he does not believe the bombings in Damascus were done by al-Qaeda.

"This lie is being used again and again by the regime", he said. "The regime lies all the time. They even lie about the weather. Are they telling the truth now that al-Qaeda is behind these bombings? The bombings are done by the regime."

Then he switched from Arabic, to say in stilted English: "I'm Muslim, I am not al-Qaeda. We don't see any men from al-Qaeda in Syria, and we are not al-Qaeda."

Moderate vs extremist

Many rebel fighters are deeply pious. But there is a moderate tradition of Islam here at odds with al-Qaeda's harsh ideology. The suicide attacks and beheadings so familiar from Iraq have not, yet, come to Syria. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda is working to gain a foothold.

One Free Syrian Army officer told me al-Qaeda figures have been visiting, trying to form new alliances. They made a direct approach to a cleric near the town of Qusair. Money, weapons and other support were offered, in return for allegiance to al-Qaeda. They turned him away.

A leading Lebanese militant allied to al-Qaeda fared worse. Walid Boustani had tried to declare an Islamic emirate in a Syrian town close to the Lebanese border. Some young men in the area joined up, but fell foul of his strict discipline. He executed two. Their families killed him.

In every battle the rebels fight, they are massively outgunned. But Western governments hesitate about arming them, in case the guns end up in radical Islamist hands. The former MI6 man Alastair Crooke worked in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad.

"At that time we also looked aside," he said. "We didn't look at who our allies were or what their motives were when they joined in with us in trying to overturn or overthrow the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. We looked away because confronting communism in Afghanistan was so popular.

"And as a result of that, we ended up with groups that were highly dangerous. We ended up with 9/11 and with two decades of the war on terror and bombs in London."

Chaos seekers

Wissam Tarif, of the pro-democracy group Avaaz, disagrees. The street protest still matters much more to the outcome in Syria than the armed groups. And, he says, the demonstrators want freedom, not another kind of dictatorship.

"The Syrians did not stand up because they want to declare jihad," he said. "They stood up because they want freedom, and I don't think the Muslim Brothers or the Salafis or any Islamist model can offer them the freedom they have been fighting for for 14 months. That's another fiction and an unjustified fear from the West."

Democracy is emphatically not what al-Qaeda is fighting for.

The jihadis do not much like the Free Syrian Army, either, since they are fighting under the banner of democracy - rather than Sharia. Still, more than a year into the uprising, people are desperate for help from anywhere.

A sign at this demonstration we attended this week said: "If you don't help us, we will die."

One of the most senior Free Syrian Army officers inside Syria, Col Kasim Saad Eddine, stressed to me that his troops were fighting for democracy, not Sharia. But he said that if the West did not come to their aid, he worried the jihadis would find an opening.

"I tell the UN and the UN Security Council, the Syrian people can't take it anymore," he said.

"Our children killed; our women raped; our houses destroyed. If no-one helps us, we will turn to the devil himself."

If al-Qaeda is here, and part of this struggle, the numbers are probably very small. We did not meet their supporters or see their influence in many months of travelling with rebel fighters.

But that could change the longer this goes on. The jihadists thrive on chaos. And they will find plenty of that in Syria.