Syria the jihadist paradise?

By Ayham Kamel

During their fight for the White House, President Obama and Governor Romney made clear they do not believe Syria poses a substantial enough threat beyond its borders to require direct foreign intervention on the ground. Take a closer look. Even if intervention is not a realistic option just yet, it's hard not to notice that Syria's problems have become its leading export.

Syria bloody struggle continues with no end in sight. The international community is paralyzed; it can neither live with an Assad regime that commits daily atrocities nor afford a risky intervention in an already unstable Middle East. To add fuel to the already raging fire, Jihadists are increasingly interested in hijacking the Arab Spring.

This problem is now redefining the rocky relationship between Jihadists, who once focused mainly on global goals, and Salafists who focused on a local agenda. Especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Jihadists have shifted their priorities and gone local, as well, working side-by-side with Salafist allies. Ayman al Zawahiri's call for Jihad in Syria highlights this trend. While the struggle against the West remains a long-term goal, Jihadists are focusing on regaining alternative bases. That's why so many foreign fighters -- though clearly not a majority of rebels -- have joined opposition ranks to fight the Assad regime.

Syria is now the crown jewel for Jihadists. It provides access into Europe through Turkey, a border with Israel, a launch site for a new insurgency in Iraq, and easier access to Salafists in Jordan and Lebanon. The opportunity to find a new recruitment hub is also invaluable: The two movements have always been ideologically close and many Jihadists are exploiting that relationship to boost their ranks.

The ripple effects of this conflict are evident across the region. In Lebanon, the assassination last month of General Wissam al Hassan, head of the intelligence division of domestic security forces, will probably undermine an already shaky security environment in that country. Northern Lebanon has effectively become a zone of instability. Salafist groups, among others, have claimed a share of the money headed for Syrian rebels, joining a battle that is both morally required and financially supported.

Jordan is beginning to experience the contagion. Recently, the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate (GID) uncovered a plot by a Salafist terrorist cell. The group acquired weapons and arms from Syria and crossed into Jordan to carry out operations against civilian targets. Both Salafists and Jihadists in Jordan are beginning to view instability in Syria as an opportunity to expand their networks and improve their capacity to carry out attacks. Jihadist forces in Syria, which are currently fighting the regime, have broader goals. As the Assad government grows weaker these groups may be willing to support their allies elsewhere, including in Jordan. While the Jordanian security services have a significant intelligence and operations capacity, it will become increasingly difficult to monitor events across the Syrian border. More importantly, while the GID was able to preempt the most recent terror attacks, their success in the future can never be guaranteed.

Iraq, whose long border with Syria has always been porous, faces growing risk of cross-border militancy. In recent years, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has built a loyal army that succeeded in containing a Sunni insurgency. But he is now right to worry that Sunni forces in Syria are encouraging and supporting their counterparts inside Iraq. Maliki, who initially supported Assad, had feared that a new Sunni government would become a hostile neighbor to Shia Iraq. But he now appears more concerned with Jihadist and Salafist groups. Cooperation between Jihadis across the border and potential flow of new fighters into Iraq are especially problematic for Iraqi stability. While violence is now concentrated in areas that are not core to oil production, the situation could change if Sunnis succeed at mounting a more robust insurgency.

Soon, Americans may again be hearing about a fight with insurgents for control of Iraq.

Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.