John Rosenthal writes: There has recently been a small stir in the American media, as media organizations from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to the Associated Press have finally gotten around to acknowledging a “presence” of al-Qaeda and like-minded jihadist groups among the Syrian rebel forces seeking to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
It is difficult to see what the cause of the excitement is. After all, such a presence has been blindingly obvious for many months: whether as a result of the dozens of suicide attacks that have plagued Syria or the numerous videos that have emerged showing rebel forces or supporters proudly displaying the distinctive black flag of al-Qaeda.
Dozens of suicide attacks? Is that an overstatement? The Long War Journal has compiled the statistics and the total currently stands at 25 such attacks. Two dozen is technically dozens because it’s more than one dozen but I think for most people the phrase “dozens” connotes a lot more.
For years, Bashar al Assad’s regime sponsored the flow of suicide bombers and foreign fighters into Iraq to fight Coalition forces. But suddenly, on Dec. 23, 2011, the regime’s own intelligence apparatus was struck by two suicide bombers in Damascus, leaving 44 dead and more than 160 wounded. The rebellion against Assad had begun nine months earlier, but no major suicide attacks, if any at all, were reported until that day in December.
The Syrian government blamed “terrorists.” The Syrian opposition blamed Assad, saying that the attacks were a false flag operation intended to undermine support for the rebels. But the opposition has clear incentives to write off the December 2011 suicide attacks as the work of the Assad regime. The rebellion had not been started by al Qaeda, and the group’s entry into the fight would only complicate international support for overthrowing the Syrian dictator.
There is a simple explanation for the suicide attacks in December and the others that would follow: blowback. Al Qaeda is staging a remarkable surge of its own in Syria.
Top US officials worried about just such a possibility well before the rebellion began. For example, a leaked State Department cable from July 2009 summarizes General David Petraeus’s view of the relationship between AQI and the Syrian regime. “In time,” the cable reads, “these fighters will turn on their Syrian hosts and begin conducting attacks against Bashar al Assad’s regime itself, Petraeus predicted.”
Relying on translations prepared by the SITE Intelligence Group and other publicly-available reports, The Long War Journal has found that approximately 25 suicide bombings have been executed in Syria since the end of last year. This includes the Dec. 23, 2011 attacks and 24 suicide bombings since the first of this year. That is, there have been about 25 suicide bombings in Syria in less than eight months.
A listing of these attacks, including links to sources when appropriate, is included below.
While this may not seem like an especially high number, it is a striking figure when compared to the global martyrdom campaign. For instance, according to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), there were 279 suicide attacks in the world in 2011. 259 of these attacks were carried out by “Sunni extremists,” or jihadists. Only one of the 259 occurred in Syria. This suggests that the prolific use of suicide bombers in Syria that began late last year now represents a significant percentage of all such attacks carried out around the globe.
Based on the available information about the number of casualties from suicide attacks in Syria, the average number of deaths per day may be as few as one and perhaps as high as two. Given that the average number of deaths overall is now well over 100 per day, deaths from suicide attacks make up a tiny fraction.
Meanwhile in neighboring Iraq during 2012, deaths from suicide attacks have averaged seven per day. In other words, the risk of being killed by a suicide bomber is far greater in Iraq than it is in Syria even though the overall level of violence in Syria is vastly more than in Iraq.
In the Western media suicide attacks often seem to be portrayed as random acts of violence by Jihadist extremists who have a hunger for martyrdom, but in reality they are simply one of many gruesome forms of violence employed in a variety of situations for a variety of purposes.
Contrary to the state-driven propaganda which portrays Assad’s forces arraigned against hordes of foreign terrorists, there is currently no reason to suppose that such attacks are likely to become much more prevalent in Syria than they already are — which is to say, they are likely to remain a peripheral feature of the conflict.