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Thursday, May 23, 2024

COLUMN: Syria’s Terror Tapestry: A Nexus of Attacks and Perpetrators

Reflecting on the never-ending conflict in Syria and the influence of the Arab Spring across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it becomes evident that promising efforts toward transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy have waned. Despite initial hopes, years of authoritarian rule in countries like Egypt, Yemen, and Libya were toppled, only for their successors to perpetuate authoritarian practices and entrench their own leadership. Syria followed a similar trajectory, with demonstrators taking to the streets to protest against Bashar al-Assad. However, these protests not only failed to overthrow Assad but also sparked the descent into chaos that plagues the country today. 

Since the onset of the civil war in 2011, Syria has been gripped by a devastating conflict that continues to claim the lives of innocent civilians. Amidst this turmoil, the country has become a fertile ground for various non-state actors, including terrorist groups and rebel factions, as well as the calculated maneuvers of state actors, each advancing their own agendas with little regard for the human toll exacted by the conflict. Despite the chaos and the involvement of numerous actors, Bashar al-Assad has managed to cling to power, underscoring the resilience of his regime. Syria stands as a poignant case study, highlighting the consequences of the relentless pursuit of self-interest and the unwavering determination of a repressive regime to maintain control. Examining the impact of state actors’ engagement in the conflict, the article analyzes non-state actors in Syria using data from the Global Terrorism and Trends Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID) spanning from 2018 to 2023. 

For the past decade, Syria has emerged as one of the leading countries experiencing a high number of terrorist attacks. In total, non-state actors were responsible for 7,622 attacks from 2018 to 2023, accounting for almost 13 percent of global terrorist incidents during the same period.  The number of attacks was at its lowest in 2018 but steadily escalated, reaching 1,482 attacks in 2021, as depicted in Figure 1 below. The figure dropped to 941 attacks in 2022 but surged further to 1,426 in 2023. Corresponding to the increase in the number of terrorist attacks, the number of people killed in these incidents decreased from 2018 to 2022. However, it significantly increased from 1,801 in 2022 to 2,253 in 2023.

Figure 1: Terrorist Incidents and Casualties in Syria (2018-2023) Figure 1: Terrorist Incidents and Casualties in Syria (2018-2023) 

GRID recorded 77 groups as perpetrators of terrorist attacks from 2018 to 2023 in Syria. These ranged from jihadist terrorist organizations to rebel groups backed by Turkiye, Iran, and Russia, as well as pro-government groups supporting Bashar Al Assad. These groups are included based on the fact that their violent acts meet the terrorism inclusion criteria used in GRID, which documents intentional violent acts committed by non-state actors for political, religious, economic, or social goals, targeting non-combatants. 

ISIS has been identified as one of the most active terrorist organizations among 77 perpetrators. Over a six-year period, ISIS was responsible for 1,622 terrorist attacks in Syria, accounting for 21 percent of total incidents. ISIS’s violent tactics and activities have cemented its prominent position in the context of global terrorism. ISIS emerged as a formidable group, controlling a significant territory spanning Iraq and Syria. Acting as a de facto state, the terrorist group ruled over more than six million people, imposing its strict interpretation of Sharia Law. Western governments intervened in the conflict against ISIS due to the immediate threat posed by the organization’s terrorist activities and the risk of its spreading ideology. Targeting ISIS militants became a priority, resulting in the loss of power for the organization and the departure of many of its militants from the region. 

The decapitation of key leaders, including Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, weakened ISIS further, leading to a common belief that the organization’s threat was confined to the regions where it operated. However, ISIS continued to attract support from local jihadist groups in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with many pledging loyalty and fighting under its banner. While Western governments were successful in weakening ISIS in Syria, their intervention came relatively late to curb the spread of the organization’s ideology. ISIS still maintains active regional affiliates in various countries, including Nigeria, the Sahel countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Afghanistan. For instance, ISIS-Khorasan, its branch in Afghanistan, emerged as one of the deadliest terrorist groups in recent years, claiming responsibility for attacks in Iran in January 2024 and in Russia in March 2024. 

ISIS has increased violence in Syria, particularly targeting Iran-backed militia groups and Syrian government forces. Additionally, benefiting from porous borders in the region, ISIS militants continue to cross borders, receive funds, and perpetrate attacks. Despite fluctuations in the overall number of terrorist incidents in Syria, the attacks carried out by ISIS showed a consistent upward trend from 2018 to 2023, as seen in Figure 2 below. Specifically, there was an almost one hundred percent increase in attacks attributed to ISIS between 2020 and 2023. 

Figure 2: ISIS Attacks in Syria (2018-2023)

Figure 2: ISIS Attacks in Syria (2018-2023) 

Al-Qaeda is indeed a significant presence in Syria, with a substantial number of attacks attributed to the group. Despite ISIS’s widespread operations across multiple countries, Western governments often prioritize addressing the threat posed by Al-Qaeda due to its long-established history, global network, and perceived operational capabilities. Al-Qaeda’s ability to carry out sophisticated attacks and its potential to inspire and coordinate terrorist activities in the Western world are major concerns for law enforcement agencies. The 2021 Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has heightened fears of Al-Qaeda’s resurgence, amplifying concerns about the group’s influence and potential for renewed terrorist activities. Additionally, Al-Qaeda maintains significant representation in other regions, including the Jama’at al Nusra Wal Muslimin in the Sahel countries and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, further solidifying its status as a prominent terrorist organization with global reach. 

Al Qaeda’s localization strategies gave rise to Jabhat al Nusra in Syria, which has since transformed into Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Al Qaeda extended these strategies to form umbrella organizations in Syria, such as the Rouse the Believers Operations Room, which comprised Hurras al Din, Ansar al-Din Front, Ansar al-Tawhid, and Ansar al-Islam. This group was responsible for 38 terrorist incidents from 2018 to 2023. Ahrar al-Sham, another Al Qaeda affiliate, carried out 18 terrorist attacks during the same period, while Ahrar al-Sharqiya, originally a unit of Ahrar al-Sham in Deir ez-Zor, perpetrated 39 terrorist attacks in Syria. 

Hurras al-Din holds a unique position among Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, as it is designated as a terrorist organization by the Department of State and was responsible for 18 attacks in Syria. Among Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, HTS stands out as the most active group, conducting 687 attacks during the same period. Although there was a steady increase in attacks from 2018 to 2020, its attacks declined in 2021 and 2022. However, the group intensified its capacity and attacks in 2023, as depicted in Figure 3 below. Currently, the group remains active in the Idlib province of Syria. 

Figure 3: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham Attacks in Syria (2018-2023)

Figure 3: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham Attacks in Syria (2018-2023) 

Kurdish groups wield significant influence in Northern Syria and are regarded as a formidable force against ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the region. Recognizing their effectiveness in combating these terrorist organizations, the US government has extended support to Kurdish groups. This support is rooted in strategic alliances to stabilize the region and counter extremist threats. Several Kurdish factions, including the Democratic Union Party, Afrin Liberation Forces, and People’s Protection Units (YPG), operate in Northern Syria. Among these, the YPG stands out as the most active group, particularly in its targeting of Turkiye-backed groups in the region. This includes launching rocket attacks aimed at Turkiye’s southern provinces. Turkey classifies these Kurdish groups as terrorist organizations and alleges their affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

Another significant group in Syria comprises those backed by Turkiye that justifies its military presence in Syria by citing its fight against ISIS and PKK-linked Kurdish groups. The Turkish government uses its involvement in Syria as a key aspect of its political rhetoric, leveraging it to appeal to nationalist sentiments and garner support from the populace. 

The porous borders between Turkiye and Syria facilitated the crossing of ISIS militants. A significant number of ISIS militants crossed Turkiye’s border and ended up in Syria from 2014 to 2018. Turkiye and other Gulf States were accused of providing arms, explosives, and funds to jihadist groups in Syria. In a particular investigation in early 2014, Turkish military personnel intercepted and thoroughly examined a truck laden with weapons. Despite the discovery, government officials vehemently denied any illicit activity, asserting that the truck was merely carrying humanitarian aid destined for Turkish communities. However, subsequent investigations revealed the contrary, highlighting the clandestine nature of the cargo. Despite the presence of compelling evidence, the investigators involved were unjustly labeled as terrorists and handed severe life sentences, condemning them to solitary confinement. This unjust treatment has instilled fear among other investigators, dissuading them from conducting similar searches on trucks traveling from Turkiye to Syria. 

Turkiye defends its support for what it terms as “moderate opposition” forces fighting against Kurdish groups and the Syrian government. These forces have transformed into today’s rebel factions. Their recruits, tactics, and targets have increasingly aligned with jihadist groups in the region, blurring the distinction between them. Consequently, Turkiye faces accusations of having strong ties with jihadist groups in Syria. These groups often incorporate prominent Turkish historical figures into their names, such as the Sultan Malak Shah Division, Sultan Mehmed Fateh, Sultan Murad Division, and Sultan Suleiman Shah Faction. Furthermore, Turkiye continues to support other opposition groups that originated from the Free Syrian Army. These include the National Liberation Front, Syrian National Army, Syrian Liberation Front, Jaysh al-Islam, Shamiya Front, Jaish al-Izza, Nur-al-Din al-Zinki Movement, Shuhada al-Sharqiya, and Abu Amarah Battalion. 

Russia and Iran are two significant players in the Syrian conflict. Bashar al-Assad’s close alliance with Russia and his commitment to serving Russian interests in the region have drawn Russia into the civil war. Russian airstrikes notably disrupted ISIS militants in 2015 and 2016. Russia has maintained support for pro-government forces in Syria through entities like the Wagner Group. Iran’s involvement is also noteworthy due to its historical ties and ideological alignment with Assad’s regime. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has led Iran-backed groups in Syria, providing training and support. Groups like Liwa Fatemiyoun, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq (IRI), Hezbollah, and various Iraqi factions have actively participated in attacks, often targeting opposition groups. They have recently increased their presence and fought against ISIS militants in Deir ez-Zor. The settlement of Iran-backed groups in Syria became more visible after the Hamas October 7th terrorist attacks. Following these attacks and until 2024, IRI conducted 119 attacks in Syria, primarily targeting American facilities and military bases. 

In addition to the well-documented involvement of non-state actors engaging in terrorism, Syria has also become a fertile ground for criminal enterprises. Specifically, it has emerged as a hub for the production and trafficking of captagon, a powerful stimulant. The country’s ongoing conflict and resulting security vacuums have provided ample opportunities for criminal organizations to set up clandestine laboratories for manufacturing captagon pills. These pills are then illicitly transported to markets primarily in the Gulf States. The rise of the captagon trade presents a paradoxical situation. While it contributes to the destabilization of the region and exacerbates societal issues such as addiction and crime, it has also inadvertently boosted Bashar Al Assad’s international standing. This is evidenced by his unexpected invitation to the Arab League Summit in 2022. It is worth noting that this invitation was significant, as it marked the first time Assad had been included in such a diplomatic event since the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011. This complex situation underscores the multifaceted nature of the Syrian conflict, where various actors, ranging from terrorist groups to criminal organizations, operate amidst the turmoil, impacting both regional security and international relations. 

To conclude, Syria stands as a compelling case study, vividly demonstrating the tumultuous consequences of anti-government protests. Initially driven by grievances against oppressive regimes, these protests have spiraled into a complex web of conflict and chaos. The involvement of jihadist terrorist groups has further exacerbated the situation, providing convenient pretexts for state actors to pursue their own agendas in Syria. Turkiye, for instance, justifies its military presence in northern Syria as a necessary measure to combat PKK-linked groups, emphasizing its national security interests. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran are staunch supporters of the Assad regime, aiming to safeguard its grip on power. Their reckless support for non-state actors, irrespective of their potential ties to terrorism, has only deepened the chaos within Syria. It appears that the exploitation of the Syrian conflict by state actors will persist, prolonging the agony of the Syrian people and perpetuating the cycle of instability in the region. The Syrian experience serves as a stark reminder of the devastating human cost of geopolitical maneuvering and the urgent need for concerted international efforts to seek a peaceful resolution to such conflicts. 

 

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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