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WASHINGTON – With al-Qaida cells beginning to spring up in Lebanon and Syria – and returning to Iraq – the prospect is looming that the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will bring about a major influx of al-Qaida cells and their franchises not only in the country but throughout the entire Levant region, according to a report from Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.

An expanding al-Qaida, along with elements of radical Sunni Salafists, could well take over the region that encompasses all of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

“The Syrian battlefield now appears awash with al-Qaida-linked jihadist cells,” said Bilal Y. Saab of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

“And even if some of these cells do not have a clear connection to al-Qaida’s franchises in the region, or to the central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they have the same goals and operate in the same religious universe,” he said.

Saab pointed out that the overall leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has called for a jihad in Syria.

“The al-Qaida leader has a clear interest in fulfilling his organization’s mission in the Levant,” Saab said. While he doesn’t believe that al-Zawahiri has instructed his operatives and followers to go “all-in” on Syria, he said al-Zawahiri’s actions like appointing a veteran operative “to unify the ranks and supervise jihadist activity in Syria” show the interest is firmly on ousting al-Assad.

As WND/G2Bulletin recently reported, al-Zawahiri last summer appointed a veteran al-Qaida operative, Majid al-Majid, a Saudi, to be in charge of all the cells in Syria and Lebanon. Sources tell WND/G2Bulletin that there are at least 13 high-ranking al-Qaida commanders in Syria who are involved in organizing the cells.

Saab points out, however, that the Syrian government is focusing on its very survival and has little time to fight the growing number of al-Qaida cells that appear to be gaining ground and recruiting new members.

Because of this preoccupation and the lack of outside Western assistance to stop an increasing al-Qaida presence, there is no strategy to combat it.

“A terrorist insurgent presence has to be fought with a comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign that operates in parallel with a state-building exercise,” Saab said. “Far more resources go into the second strategy given the formidable long-term threat that insurgencies pose, but that does not mean that the threat posed by cells is less severe or easier to counter.”

The effort requires a combination of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, but can’t be implemented due to the lack of Western assistance to fight the growth of these al-Qaida cells and the Syrian government’s preoccupation with trying to survive.

“The result is that al-Qaida has been allowed by default to operate freely in this relatively open Syrian space using the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey as a major transit point,” Saab said.

Turkey has been a jump-off point for al-Qaida to enter Syria along with other Syrian opposition forces, which are reinforced financially and with arms from the Saudi government. The Saudis, who are Sunnis, believe that the fall of the Shi’a Alawite regime of al-Assad will end the alliance with Shi’ite Iran, although the Islamic republic’s influence in Lebanon also has growing in recent years.

Saab pointed out that right now there is a total absence of any domestic or foreign force able to prevent al-Qaida from establishing a strategic base in Syria for the entire Levant.

“Those who believe al-Qaida is dead should closely watch events in Syria,” Saab said. “If Ayman al-Zawahiri plays his cards right, the terrorist organization could be reborn in that part of the world.”

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