How Assad created a jihadist ‘monster’
After the 9/11 attacks in the United States, I was dispatched to northern Lebanon to investigate what my newspaper had previously regarded as a minor skirmish. Word had it the US Central Intelligence Agency was in Beirut to interview survivors of the Asbat al-Ansar group, which in January 2000 had lost 14 members and killed 20 Lebanese soldiers in clashes in Dinnieh, inland from Tripoli.
The official Lebanese and Syrian version was that the battle of Dinnieh had come after the army detected a training camp run by militants linked to al-Qaeda, showing the need for America, reeling from Osama bin Laden’s group’s suicide attacks, to recognise that Lebanon and Hafez Assad’s Syria were part of the solution and not part of the problem.
In the area of Tripoli where many of the militants had reportedly lived, I paused by a large picture of Syria’s president and was quickly questioned by a security man who had been tending a fast-food stall. Only the naive would have marvelled at the skill of Islamic militants in managing to operate in such an environment.
“Blowback” is usually associated with the United States, especially in the way its support for militant Sunni Islamists fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s “blew back” through the spawning of groups such as al-Qaeda. But calibrated support for radical Islamists has also been a long-term Syrian policy.
In part, this has been a tactic. A recent book by the Brookings Doha Centre’s Charles Lister, who has met with major jihadist leaders across the region, quotes Syria’s director of general intelligence General Ali Mamlouk telling a US delegation in 2010: “In principle, we don’t attack or kill [jihadists] immediately. Instead, we embed ourselves in them and only at the opportune moment do we strike.”
Lister’s comprehensive account, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, suggests the relationship has been as much strategic as tactical. He traces it back to Hafez Assad’s “opening up” to Islam in the 1990s “when dozens of new mosques were constructed… and countless Islamic schools were established in which Quranic studies prevailed over traditional curriculums”.
Within two weeks of 9/11, a preacher known as Abu al-Qaqaa led a celebration in Aleppo and, while he was briefly detained, by early 2002 he was organising more events. “Jihadists in Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa and elsewhere (began)… to adopt an increasingly overt and public profile,” writes Lister.
In the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, I was often in Damascus seeing Iraqi opposition figures. They had access to senior Syrians that I lacked and several told me of a divide within Syria’s leadership between those — mainly Alawite — who looked forward to Saddam Hussein’s removal, even at Washington’s hand, and those who opposed it.
This split arose both from calculating the Syrian regime’s interests and from instinctive loyalties — to the Alawites or to the wider Arab world of which Saddam was somehow part.
It did not disappear when the invasion happened but the US intervention did shift the balance because, notes Lister, it “provided a perfect opportunity for Syria to transform a potential internal threat into an exportable external one”.
Syria’s grand mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Kaftaru, issued a fatwa making resistance to occupation fardh ayn (personal obligation), as authorities transferred Syrian and other volunteers to Iraq.
“As the initial invasion unfolded, busloads of Syrians were driven across Syria towards the eastern governorates of Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor, where border guards willingly waved them through ‘open gates’ into Iraq,” writes Lister. “This was the start of a mass migration of Arabs towards Iraq — almost exclusively via Syria — that would come to define the development of a committed jihadist insurgency in that country.”
By 2005, with a “Syrian Ba’ath- Iraqi Ba’ath-al-Qaeda nexus” established, the Syrian regime was having second thoughts and increased the border force to 10,000 from the 700 who had been along the Iraqi frontier in 2003 (when the United States also abolished Iraq’s border force). While the influx of foreign fighters fell in 2005, writes Lister, it again rose in 2006-07, with more than 100 a week leaving for Iraq according to US intelligence.
Syria was still offering the United States intelligence cooperation — Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem at the Iraq conference in Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2007 — as well as re-exporting Sunni militants to Lebanon.
Strongholds there included the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp outside Tripoli, where 400 militants were killed in a three-month battle with the Lebanese army in 2007. Survivors fled to Syria.
The conclusion of all this is stark. When the “Arab spring” arrived in Syria, there was a jihadist network already in place. As Lister puts it: “Elements within Syrian intelligence had helped create a true monster”.