Last week, General Salim Idris, the head of the Supreme Military Command, made this point for the first time in a little-noticed interview he gave to al-Arabiya, about a fortnight or so after one of his deputy commanders was shot in the chest by the coastal emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Iraqi-based al-Qaeda syndicate now highly active in Syria. In the course of explaining how these “foreigners” were generally fucking up the noble rebel cause, Idris let slip this comment: “We refuse them strongly because unfortunately they work with the regime of the criminal Bashar al-Assad.” A cynic would pause only momentarily before concluding that this was little more than a shrewd propaganda trick for Idris to perform, desperate as he is for long-promised and long-deferred U.S. weapons. After all, there is a budding crisis between the moderate Free Syrian Army forces under his command and al-Qaeda. What better way to convince Washington that you’re the kosher sort of rebel than by signposting as both a happy antagonist of the latter as well as the regime?
According to those close to Idris, this interview deviated from his usual talking points in the press, where he’s been careful to distance himself from jihadists, but hasn't repudiate them outright since Supreme Military Command units partner militarily with the Islamic State and the other, older al-Qaeda iteration in Syria with which it has lately merged, Jabhat al-Nusra. Few were expecting Idris to effectively denounce the Bin Ladenists as collaborators with Damascus, which in revolutionary terms is about as bad as declaring all-out war against them, which no one this senior in the FSA has yet done.
At the most literal level, Idris is correct. The Guardian in May quoted a Western official who said that the regime is indeed cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusra, the other al-Qaeda syndicate in Syria, which technically merged with the Islamic State after pledging allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, because al-Nusra controls the oil fields in Deir Ezzor. According to a Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel fighter, the regime “pay[s] more than 150m Syrian lire [£1.4m] monthly to Jabhat al-Nusra to guarantee oil is kept pumping through two major oil pipelines in Banias and Latakia. Middlemen trusted by both sides are to facilitate the deal and transfer money to the organisation.”
Occluded in the carefully scripted and produced reinvention of the regime as a mortal enemy of al-Qaeda is the fact that it was once the chief facilitator and egger-on of al-Qaeda and may in fact retain vestiges of this old relationship even unto the present day. Every Syrian revolutionary I’ve ever met or spoken with believes that, at some level, the Machiavellian who used to send “ratlines” of al-Qaeda fighters into Iraq and provide newly arrived jihadist recruits with safe houses in the Jazira, is still working with these erstwhile allies, even at the cost of seeing his own military and security installations blown up in suicide or car bombings. The purpose is to advance a perception that has in fact gained considerable traction in the international press in the last year or so; namely, that Assad is enjoined in the global war on terror and that his enemies are American and Western enemies who should not be aided or armed in any way. (The FSB, Russia’s successor agency to the KGB, has been credibly accused of staging false flag terrorist bombings in and outside of Moscow in 2000 order to rally domestic and international opinion for the Second Chechen War. Because Syria’s intelligence and military elite have all been trained in the former Soviet Union or in post-Soviet Russia, I’d wager that Moscow has been more than a curious bystander in helping Assad realize the propaganda value to be mined from such a perception.)
This would probably be easily dismissed as a conspiracy theory but for the fact that former regime officials have said much the same thing. So have al-Nusra defectors, one of whom told a colleague of mine in Idlib recently that it was absolutely the case that the mukhabarat continues to maintain close ties with the organization now blacklisted by the United States.
To date, the most prominent regime defector to make this allegation was Nawaf al-Fares, the former Syrian ambassador to Iraq, who turned against his embassy and his government in June 2012. Al-Fares is the chief of a clan within the Oqaydat tribal confederation, a major clan in Deir Ezzor, and is thus familiar with the terrain that abuts Anbar Province and was used as the gateway for 90 percent of the foreign fighters joining al-Qaeda in Iraq during the height of that country’s civil war. He told The Sunday Telegraph a year ago that that jihadi units he himself helped send into Iraq were immolating themselves in Syria, at the behest of the regime. One such spectacular, Fares said, was against the military intelligence complex in al-Qazzaz, Damascus in May 2012 (just a month prior to his defection) in which 55 people were killed, and 370 wounded. “I know for certain that not a single serving intelligence official was harmed during that explosion, as the whole office had been evacuated 15 minutes beforehand,” he said. “All the victims were passersby instead. All these major explosions have been perpetrated by al-Qaeda through cooperation with the security forces.”
Of particular interest in al-Fares’ exposure of this alliance was his mention of a U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) raid in October 2008 into the village of al-Sukariya near the border town Abu Kamal to kill Abu Ghadiya, or Badran Turki al-Mazidih, a smuggler in his late twenties who helped funnel explosives and personnel into Anbar Province. At the peak of his success, Abu Ghadiya was moving 100 or so fighters per month, all with the complete knowledge and likely consent of Assef Shawkat, Assad’s now-assassinated brother-in-law. Fares told CNN that the camp hit by the JSOC team in an operation remarkably similar to the one that would later kill Bin Laden in Abbottabad was not only under the control of Shawkat, but that Shawkat actually visited the scene an hour after Abu Ghadiya’s death. (When then-British Foreign Secretary David Miliband confronted Assad personally in Damascus about Abu Ghadiya’s presence in Syria under obvious mukhabarat patronage, the dictator not only lied and said the man was never there, but then, as is his logical wont, angrily claim that Abu Ghadiya’s snuffing by the Americans was a violation of Syria’s sovereignty.)
The details of this raid, as recounted by Fares, were not only confirmed by an unnamed Obama administration official cited by CNN at the time but then later substantiated and expanded upon in an essay for Foreign Policy published several months later – in October 2012 – and written Michael R. Gordon and Wesley S. Morgan, based on an excerpt from Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor’s book, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. (In a further sign of al-Fares’ credibility, he also told the BBC shortly after his defection that not only would Assad use chemical weapons if he felt severely threatened by the opposition but he’d likely already done so.)
This accusation of complicity with al-Qaeda was corroborated recently by another regime defector in an interview scarcely noticed by the Western press. Affaq Ahmad, the former right-hand man of General Jamil Hasan, the head of Syria’s Air Force intelligence and one of Assad’s most brutal and trusted henchman, defected after the regime’s kidnapping and murder of Hamza al-Khatib in 2011. He first went to Jordan and now is based somewhere in France. He said that the mukhabarat has thoroughly infiltrated jihadist and non-jihadist rebel groups in Syria at the command level and – even more significant – that it controls several brigades that have simply stopped fighting regime forces altogether. Ahmad’s comments are worth quoting at length:
The infiltration usually is focused on the sponsors, the grand Sheikh, or the top leaders of the groups, and mainly via manipulating the sources of financial support.
Currently, there are more than 25 brigades in the Free Syrian Army [Ahmad appears to use this term to encompass both jihadists and non-jihadists –ed] in Aleppo, and Hama that do not get close to the regime forces, nor get in fights with them. They also decline to get into fights in the coastal areas due to an agreement between them and the regime that had been brokered by the financial backers of these brigades.
Actually, the jihadist groups and brigades were very useful for the regime because they provided a justification for the regime’s insistence on a military solution, and provided some legitimacy under the cover of the War on Terror.
These groups did not cross the red lines that were agreed on by the regime and their sponsors. This included the regime accepting the killing by those groups of Alawis and Druze in order to use that to convince these minorities to rally around the regime and hold on to it.
Which is certainly barbaric enough a plan for Assad to take up. The Palestine Branch of Syrian military intelligence and the Special Operations Division of Air Force intelligence, headed by Colonel Suhail Hassan, are the mukhabarat bureaus in charge of overseeing the infiltration effort, Ahmad explained.
Elizabeth O’Bagy of the Syrian Emergency Task Force relayed the following anecdote to me. A few FSA commanders recently went to one of the tribal authorities (not on anyone’s side in the revolution but its own) and complained about al-Nusra’s parlays with the regime and tribes of Deir Ezzor designed to divvy up the profits from the Syrian oil sector. The tribal authority confirmed everything but told the FSA commanders not to raise a fuss because “we’re making a lot money on oil sales.” O’Bagy also said that al-Nusra and the Islamic State is rumored to have cut a deal with the regime not to participate on front-lines of battles and reduce spectacular attacks in exchange for being allowed to govern their own territories in the north.
“That is what happened in Raqqa,” O’Bagy said. “It was a negotiated solution.”
What this means is that al-Qaeda’s rampage through Syria, now the latest obsession of counterterrorism and Pentagon officials, is not really a simply case of “blowback”; it’s more like a controlled demolition by an extremely savvy contractor. This should also complicate one of the more brittle cliches you continue to hear Washington, which is that we don’t really know who’s who in the opposition. That may be true, but the more important question is: do we even remember who’s who in the regime?