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Blowback in Syria

10:43 AM, Jul 24, 2012 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Petraeus continued to press the problem of Syria’s sponsorship of AQI with senior Italian leaders, including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one week later. A cable summarizing the December 9-10 meeting reads:

Petraeus noted Syrian officials were well aware of the activities of Al Qaeda for [sic] foreign fighter facilitators on their soil and added that the 90 percent drop in the numbers of fighters and suicide bombers entering Iraq was thanks to actions by governments in North Africa and the Region, and was not due primarily to any Syrian efforts.

Months later, in July 2009, Petraeus met with Lebanon’s top officials, including Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and President Michel Sleiman. Two leaked cables summarize those meetings. In one, Petraeus credits the Syrian regime with being “somewhat more helpful than in the past stemming the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq” and said that “the number of such fighters entering Iraq from Syria had decreased.” The cable adds (emphasis added):

However, the problem continues: not only do foreign fighters and suicide bombers continue to come into Iraq from Syria, but the Syrian regime allows foreign fighter facilitator cadres to base themselves in Syrian territory, Petraeus said. In time, these fighters will turn on their Syrian hosts and begin conducting attacks against Bashar al-Asad's regime itself, Petraeus predicted.

Another cable from late 2008 relays the same warning from Petraeus:

Ghadiyah’s successors, [Petraeus] noted, were already getting established. He added that the Syrian regime should be very concerned about such deals with extremists, citing the situation the Pakistani government currently faced with extremists they had condoned.

Petraeus’s prediction proved to be prescient. AQI has joined other al Qaeda-affiliated parties in the rebellion and is targeting Assad’s regime. The years-long assistance provided by Assad, Shawqat and other Syrian officials did not earn the terror network’s loyalty.

Some in Washington and in intelligence circles imagine that al Qaeda is incapable of working with other bad actors who do share the terrorist organization’s ideology. Some imagine even further that Shiites and Sunnis can never mix – not even in the terrorist underworld. Shawkat’s dossier proves otherwise, as does much other evidence.

In 2006, the Treasury Department designated Shawkat as a terrorist supporter, noting that he coordinated the activities of several terrorist groups: Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

Hezbollah is, of course, a Lebanese Shiite terrorist organization that has long served as a proxy for both Syria and Iran. Hamas and PIJ are radical Sunni terrorist organizations. Despite their theological differences, Shawkat “discussed coordination and cooperation between the terrorist groups” with leaders from each of them. And each of these groups enjoyed safe haven inside Assad’s Syria. 

As the leaked State Department cables demonstrate, Assad also did not object to working with al Qaeda when it suited his interests. The Baathists of Damascus were quite willing to work with AQI. And AQI gladly accepted the Assad family’s help. That relationship did not last forever, but the fact remains that the two sides frequently made common cause in the fight against America and its allies inside Iraq.  

The Syrian rebellion is not strictly an al Qaeda affair, of course, as many of the rebels hail from other walks of life. And we do not know who, exactly, was responsible for the killing of Shawqat and Assad’s other close confidants.  But Shawkat and Assad played with fire for years. It was only a matter of time until they were burned. 

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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