Since the uprising in Syria began in 2011, Bashar al-Asad’s regime has followed a tried and trusted script to destroy the opposition by eliminating all engageable elements, creating a binary choice for the population and the world—the despotism or a terrorist takeover.
Asad bolstered extremists within the insurgency: letting Islamists out of prison while imprisoning secular activists, pushing a peaceful protest movement into violence, heightening sectarian tensions, and financial schemes of various kinds. Asad then then left IS alone for a year to build its caliphate, while obliterating rebel-held areas that could provide an attractive alternative to the dictatorship.
Asad’s deputies have hardly been shy in underlining what they have done, so confident are they that they have left outside powers no choice but to side with them in suppressing a jihadist insurrection.
There is a long backstory to Asad’s manipulation of jihadi-Salafist terrorism for his own ends. There is a mountain of evidence, including from U.S. court cases, documenting Asad’s use of the Islamic State (IS) to destabilize Iraq after the fall of Saddam Husayn—a project that actually began before the Iraq invasion in March 2003.
The 127th issue of Al-Naba, IS’s weekly newsletter, was released on 13 April 2018; on page 9 it contained an article that, for perhaps the first time ever in its official literature, admitted to working with the intelligence services of the Asad regime.
The article opens with a lament that jihadist prisoners are frequently tortured and mistreated in the prisons of Arab governments. By “monitoring suspects, penetrating the ranks of their enemies, and uncovering the connections” between individuals, information is gathered that can be weaponized (blackmail); in combination with bribes, the Arab regimes are able to pick apart the Islamist networks, Al-Naba says.
The security services also set other “traps”, Al-Naba explains, such as allowing areas of freedom that lead al-muwahideen (the monotheists) to reveal themselves. The regimes will arrest youths who are drawn into extremism when space is opened up, but they tend to do so only for “limited periods”, releasing them after “making sure they are not a current [security] risk”.
Al-Naba says that during these periods of greater laxness, the tyrannical systems might seek to make a deal with the jihadists against a common foe, internal or external, or at the very least to forge a non-aggression pact while the regime deals with larger issues. There can be benefit, Al-Naba says, since even if the jihadists have to develop under the gaze of the regime, they can increase their size and plant seeds—i.e. spread their message and embed covert cells—that can be harvested later.
The problem, says Al-Naba, is that this tide can turn quickly, whether to appease “infidel” powers or from their own sense of threat. The “preachers and instigators of jihad” might even be found to assist the jailers, says Al-Naba, a none-too-subtle reference to figures like Mahmud al-Aghasi (Abu al-Qaqa), a cleric in Aleppo who licensed and orchestrated the movement of jihadists into Iraq, while being an agent of Asad’s secret police and allegedly helping the regime keep tabs on the zealots.
Most intriguing is the last section of the article under the subheading, “Lessons from the mistakes of some muwahideen in Syria”.
As evidence of the above-described problems of flirting with Arab intelligence agencies, writes Al-Naba, one can look to “what happened in Syria at the beginning of the jihad in Iraq, where the security services of the Nusayri regime turned a blind eye to the many young people looking to support the mujahideen in Iraq”. There were “hundreds of young people in Syria” who tolerated this implicit agreement with the regime, but Al-Naba dismisses this compromise as not having contributed very much to the jihadists’ cause.
This is a self-serving and self-justifying judgment, of course. Among those whom Asad bussed over the border in the early days of the Iraq invasion was Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), a senior leader in IS’s Mosul stronghold until he led IS’s intrusion into Syria in late 2011, forming Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham), a significant extremist problem to this day, based in northern Syria, which appears to have dabbled in anti-Western terrorism.
Just after the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq, the Asad regime cracked down, Al-Naba notes, and nearly 1,000 jihadists were arrested. This matches other sources, which note a roundup by the Asad regime around this time that imprisoned future IS leaders like Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer).
Al-Naba mentions Jund al-Sham, a jihadi organisation that carried out an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in September 2006. IS presents Jund al-Sham as a victim of Asad’s 2006-07 crackdown and perhaps it was. But the group had links to the regime and jihadists attacking American targets in Damascus was rather a useful message for Asad at that moment. Taking place shortly after Asad had collaborated with Hizballah jihadists to assassinate Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and with the regime under pressure from the Bush administration to turn off the flow of suicide bombers into Iraq, the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Syria shifted the narrative to one where Asad was the victim—and a potential partner against—Islamist terrorism, rather than its sponsor.
Beyond the direct weakening of the “jihad project” by arresting its operatives, Al-Naba says this crackdown suppressed the Salafi arguments and raised the arguments of the Sufis and Shi’is and the palace scholars of the Arabian Peninsula, and worst of all intimidated sympathisers into not taking up arms alongside the jihadists. This was far worse, Al-Naba argues, because “[a]rrest and its effects may be limited to detainees and their families and relatives”, while the intimidation factor “concerns millions of Muslims”.
Nonetheless, Al-Naba concludes, this was a valuable experience because it made the jihadists “wary” of the intelligence services of the regional states and made the jihadists “remember that they have more enmity toward [disbelieving Arab rulers] than the Crusaders”.
“It is the duty of every Muslim to keep his hostility to the tyrants and their protectors and security apparatuses always before his eyes, and treat them on the basis of this enmity”, Al-Naba writes, finishing with a quote from the Qur’an [Anfal (8): 30]: “Remember how the disbelievers plotted against you to imprison you, or to kill you, or to evict you; they were plotting and Allah too was planning”.
The current dynamics of the Syrian war, particularly the strategic defeat of the rebellion, have led to another round of suggestions that reconciling with Asad is the best way forward. This has come from some unexpected places, as well as some longstanding advocates of rehabilitating Asad. This would be a strategic calamity, underwriting the Iranian revolution’s imperial sphere in the Middle East and Russia’s position, and a reward for Asad’s cynical jihadi gambit and genocidal statecraft.