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Blowback in Syria

10:43 AM, Jul 24, 2012 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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On Wednesday, July 18, a bomb killed at least three top officials from Bashar al Assad’s crumbling regime. Among them was Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and former head of Syrian military intelligence. Different accounts of how Shawkat and the others were killed have been offered to the media. Either a suicide bomber or a remotely detonated explosive device did them in. In either case, it was a remarkable turn of events—a boomerang of sorts. For years, Shawkat and his fellow Assad family cronies directed this sort of attack at others, particularly American soldiers in Iraq.

Bashar al-Assad

Leaked State Department cables show that Shawkat was one of al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) most important patrons. And he played this role on behalf of his brother-in-law, Bashar al Assad. The Assad regime has American blood on its hands.

In late October 2008, the U.S. military launched a daring commando raid inside Syria, just several miles from the Iraqi border. The target was a top al Qaeda facilitator known as Abu Ghadiyah. Earlier that same year, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Ghadiyah, a native Iraqi, and three of his family members as major al Qaeda players. They ran a pipeline in Syria for foreign fighters and suicide bombers traveling to Iraq.

Ghadiyah was appointed as the head of this Syrian-based network in 2004 by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the notorious overall leader of AQI until his demise in 2006. After Zarqawi’s demise, Ghadiyah went to work for the new head of AQI, Abu Ayyub al Masri, who was also subsequently killed in 2010. Both Zarqawi and al Masri set up shop inside Iraq prior to the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The Abu Ghadiyah network was responsible for much of the carnage that followed Saddam Hussein’s ouster. A July 11, 2008 cable from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad describes the network as the “principal conduit for foreign terrorists heading into Iraq to join AQI.” The cable reads: “This network continues to operate with the knowledge of the Syrian government and sends virtually all of its foreign terrorists into Iraq across the Syrian border.”

It is easy to see why the U.S. military was keen to disrupt Ghadiyah’s network. The number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers who were shuttled into Iraq through this Syrian-based hub is easily in the hundreds.

Before Abu Ghadiyah was killed, General David Petraeus and other U.S. officials visited Syria’s neighbors in an attempt to put pressure on Assad to give up his support for AQI. These efforts were fruitless. Thus, the U.S. military decided to take matters into its own hands and executed the unprecedented raid on al Qaeda inside Syria in October 2008.

But even after the decapitation strike on Abu Ghadiyah’s compound the network remained a problem. 

During a December 26, 2008 meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, according to one leaked State Department cable, General Petraeus explained “that the Syrians are playing a dangerous double game” with respect to the Iraqi insurgency. The cable summarizes Petraeus’s comments further: “While professing commitment to security cooperation, [the Syrians] turn a blind eye to AQI terrorist facilitation activity and they aid and abet Iran’s interference in Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere.”

Petraeus pointed the finger of blame directly at Assad and Shawqat, who knew full well what al Qaeda was up to on Syrian soil. Foggy Bottom’s cable reads (emphasis added):

Bashar al-Asad was well aware that his brother-in-law 'Asif Shawqat, Director of Syrian Military Intelligence, had detailed knowledge of the activities of AQI facilitator Abu Ghadiya, who was using Syrian territory to bring foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq. Both Lebanese President Michel Sulayman and Jordan’s Director of General Intelligence had warned Al-Asad and his GID Director, respectively, that the U.S. knew about these activities and urged him to take action, but their warnings were unheeded, Gen. Petraeus noted.

Petraeus sounded a similar theme earlier that same month, on December 2, 2008, when he met with Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Commander Jean Kahwagi. “We know for a fact that Syrian Military Intelligence Director Asif Shawka[t] is aware of this issue, as is President Assad,” Petraeus is quoted as saying. Petraeus was referring directly to the issue of “foreign fighters,” -- that is, al Qaeda fighters – entering Iraq from Syria.

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