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Islamic Militancy In Syria.

The growing weakness of Assad's regime since it was forced to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon in late April 2005 has encouraged Islamic militants in Syria to spread. These are Neo-Salafis inspired by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda. (Bin Laden's mother is a Syrian). Assad gives Hamas' political leader, Khaled Me'shal, and Islamic Jihad's leadership safe haven in Syria. Now dependent heavily in aid from Tehran, Assad provides support to Hizbullah and, in a speech on Aug. 15, castigated Arab rulers as "half men" for failing to press for a quick end to the war in Lebanon. In that speech Assad particularly angered the rulers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The Sept. 12 attack and the growing presence of armed Neo-Salafis in Syria - a country ruled by Alawites - has been troubling to the authorities. It followed a similarly foiled attack against a government building three months earlier. The New York Times on Sept. 18 quoted Adnan Abu-Odeh, a former political adviser to the late King Hussein of Jordan, as saying: "The fact that the Syrian regime is perceived as anti-US does not save Syria from becoming a target of the jihadists, because the jihadists in principle are against these regimes for ideological reasons".

In Egypt, the authorities recently broke up a Neo-Salafi cell, detaining about 100 people suspected of adopting al-Qaeda's ideology. In Jordan, 15 Islamist MPs recently threatened to resign. On Sept. 15, four al-Qaeda terrorists were killed as they tried to attack an oil plant in Yemen. From Rabat to Riyadh, the order after World War II - long accustomed to encouraging domestic anger against Israel - has seen its grip on power challenged as instability washes across the Middle East. That coincided with the rise of the insurgency in Iraq. The region has been defined by conflict, and rulers are unafraid to use force to crush opposition. But the current level of instability has unnerved them.

The NYT quoted Gamal Abdel-Gawad, who runs the International Relations unit at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, as saying: "The...regimes cannot disregard or dismiss the influence of Islamist movements in their countries". The empowerment of Islamists has been propelled by events large and small - the occupation of Iraq, Israel's war with Hizbullah, US support for Israel in that war, Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad and, on Sept. 12, comments about Islam made by Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope on Sept. 17 issued an apology, but the angry response highlighted a tension years in the making which have helped lay the groundwork for a rise in support for Islamic groups and radicalism.

Struggling to strip credibility from Islamic groups, rulers long tried to take the lead in defending Islamic values, while simultaneously trying to crush organisations like the MB which defined themselves as Islamic. That created societies more religious and more distrustful of their rulers. Egyptian feminist author Nawal al-Sa'dawi in late 2005 said: "Progressive people like us, we were closed down. My books were censored. Men and women who were secular and progressive were silenced, and they gave space more and more to religious people". The pressures on Arab governments - those close to the West and those opposing it - are increasingly clear.

In Jordan, the government recently sentenced two MPs to prison for attending a mourning ceremony for Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia who was killed in June by a US air strike near Iraq's northern town of Ba'quba. The 15 MPs of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the MB's political arm in Jordan, threatened to resign - which could have caused a crisis for King Abdullah II. The MPs later backed down in part to preserve IAF's "ability to influence society", said Rohile Gharaibeh, the group's deputy secretary-general in Jordan.

Muhammad Habash, a Syrian MP who heads the reformist Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus, says part of the reason Syria has taken an anti-US line is to curtail the influence of radical currents in Syria. He added: "So Syria's objecting position is not only to challenge but to avoid problems inside".

The Arab League, the institutional face of the status quo representing 22 Arab states, is trying to re-establish stability by pushing to renew Arab-Israeli peace talks. The NYT quoted a "senior Arab League diplomat" as saying: "There is increased instability in the region; you see it all around you. The the Palestinian issue... Frustration is building upon frustration, from what's happening in Palestine, Iraq, and what happened in Lebanon".
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Sep 25, 2006
Previous Article:Syrian Opposition Expands; Ba'thist Regime Is Split & Another Iraq Is In The Making.
Next Article:Iran Defies UNSC.

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