Advocates of robust American action in Syria to help remove Bashar al-Assad from power have typically made two arguments. One is the humanitarian case, urging the Obama administration to prevent further bloodshed in what is now turning into a campaign of sectarian cleansing against Syria’s Sunni Arab majority. The other is the strategic case, which argues that by bringing down Assad the White House can set back the Iran-led resistance bloc. But now it’s clear there’s a third rationale for America to help get rid of Assad as quickly as possible: The Assad regime is closely allied with al Qaeda.
In an interview in the Sunday Telegraph, the most recent defector from Assad’s regime explains how Syrian security services use al Qaeda to advance regime interests. Nawaf Fares, formerly the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, contends that the regime was behind the May al Qaeda attacks outside a military intelligence building in the al-Qazzaz suburb of Damascus, which killed 55 people and injured 370.
“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,” Fares said. “All the victims were passers by instead. All these major explosions have been have been perpetrated by al-Qaeda through cooperation with the security forces.”
Fares’s revelations should come as something of an embarrassment to the U.S. intelligence community. James Clapper and other intelligence officials have repeatedly attributed various attacks in Syria to al Qaeda, without any caveats qualifying their assessments, even though it is common knowledge that the regime has made a habit of working with al Qaeda and other Salafi jihadist organizations.
The issue of course is that the White House is so eager for the whole Syria mess to just disappear that it seems to be shaping intelligence assessments. It appears that the administration’s intended message was, if we help the opposition bring down Bashar, then we are aiding al Qaeda—see, they’re already active in Syria, bombing regime installations. The Fares interview argues otherwise—that the regime itself controls al Qaeda operations in Syria.
As analyst Jonathan Spyer writes in the Jerusalem Post, “A degree of scepticism is useful, of course, in evaluating Fares’s statement. He is a newly minted enemy of the regime, and has an interest in blackening its name. But while the cynicism that would enable a regime to deliberately target its own population may seem shocking, it is in fact entirely in accord with the past practice of the Assad regime. Indeed, the skillful use of jihadi organizations as tools of policy is one of the hallmarks of the Syrian dictatorship.”
As Spyer notes, the Syrians used an al Qaeda affiliate, Fatah Islam, to try to destabilize Lebanon in 2007. However, the Assad regime’s most significant joint operation with al Qaeda was run against American forces in Iraq. According to the Telegraph interview, Fares played an important role in that campaign. Fares, the Telegraph explains, is “a senior member of the Oqaydat tribe, a highly powerful clan whose population straddles the Syrian-Iraq border. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, their territory became part of the conduit used by Syria to smuggle jihadi volunteers into Iraq.”
“After the invasion of Iraq in 2003,” says Fares, “the regime in Syria began to feel danger, and began planning to disrupt the US forces inside Iraq, so it formed an alliance with al-Qaeda," he said. "All Arabs and other foreigners were encouraged to go to Iraq via Syria, and their movements were facilitated by the Syrian government. As a governor at the time, I was given verbal commandments that any civil servant that wanted to go would have his trip facilitated, and that his absence would not be noted. I believe the Syrian regime has blood on its hands, it should bare (sic) responsibility for many of the deaths in Iraq.”
That is to say, the regime is responsible for many American deaths in Iraq. There is no reason to assume that the regime in Damascus won’t again use al Qaeda to target Americans, if it suits regime interests, as it did in Iraq.
The White House has used drone strikes to target al Qaeda regulars and those affiliated with the group throughout the greater Middle East and North Africa (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia)—a “kill list” that the president personally oversees. For many reasons, not least to compel more defections from the regime, Bashar al-Assad should be on that list.