- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 6, 2005

DAMASCUS — Syria’s recent clashes with militants have raised the prospect that the country — under U.S. pressure to keep terrorists out of Iraq — might be facing a resurgence of Islamic extremists within its own borders.

Long-dormant Islamic-based groups that oppose the Syrian regime appear to be taking advantage of the government’s tight spot to reassert themselves, some political analysts and outside experts said.

“The more you weaken the regime, the more you give the chance for opposition groups, including Islamic extremists, to regroup,” said Nizar Hamzeh, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut and an expert on Islamic political movements.

Syria has gone on the offensive recently, announcing measures to crack down on foreign fighters slipping into Iraq from its territory. The initiative appears to be an attempt to relieve some pressure from the U.S. and Iraq, which say Syria has not done enough to fight terrorism.

The series of recent clashes has also highlighted the extremist groups’ longtime hostility toward the Syrian regime, too.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Al Arabiya satellite channel, said the clashes show that al Qaeda “has indeed started its war against Syria.”

Writing in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper Monday, he noted the irony that the Syrian government and Islamic terrorists have cooperated in the past.

But such cooperation was only “a marriage of convenience” to achieve certain goals such as confronting U.S. troops in Iraq, and groups such as al Qaeda consider Syria to be an “infidel” regime that needs to be changed, he noted.

“They may have slept in the same bed to fight the Americans, but what’s important for al Qaeda is that it has entered the bedroom and secured a foothold there,” he wrote.

There is little question that the militants seem willing to fight the Syrian regime.

On Monday, the Syrian government said its security forces had clashed with a band of militants — including that former bodyguards of toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — on a resort mountain overlooking the Syrian capital, Damascus.

During the clash, security forces captured Jordanian suspect Sharif Ayed Saeed al-Smady and the wife of his brother, said a Syrian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, as officials here routinely require.

In an interview with Syrian television, the wife, Rihab Shahab, said the group was planning terror attacks in Syria and also was preparing to travel to Iraq using forged passports.

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