It turns out that there are second acts in international politics. Four years after the Bush administration severed diplomatic relations with Syria, in the aftermath of the Damascus regime’s suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the unofficial member of the “axis of evil” has received a warmer reception from the Bush administration’s successor. President Obama has expressed his intention to engage Syria, and the administration took a decisive step in that direction last month when it announced plans to send an ambassador to the country.
But as the U.S. prepares to engage the Assad regime, it must be aware of the potential dangers of such a move. By extending an olive branch to Syria, the Obama administration risks legitimizing a dictatorship that has brutally suppressed democrats and human-rights activists while fueling the insurgency in Iraq and aiding al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists – all while casting itself as the only reasonable choice to rule the country.
Syria’s long-standing relationship with terrorists has been obscured by conventional wisdom. That wisdom, which holds that a relationship cannot exist between the secularist Baath state of Syria and the radical Islamic forces linked to al-Qaeda, is easily debunked. It is well-known that the majority of foreign fighters in Iraq, including those linked to al-Qaeda, entered via Syria. The public antagonism the two forces present towards each other may be genuine, but it has not prevented cooperation when their interests coincide.
They have coincided often in recent years. On January 9, 2008 the Treasury Department blacklisted Mish’an Rakin Thamin al-Jaburi, who fled to Syria in February 2006 after being kicked out of Iraq’s parliament. He is the owner of al-Zawraa T.V., a station that broadcasted anti-American propaganda and passed on messages to insurgents. The U.S. government accuses him of using his nephew to store weapons, money and footage for the insurgents in Iraq. However, the Treasury Department’s press release detailing the blacklist contains a paragraph critical to understanding state sponsorship of terrorism:
“Despite being publicly critical of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), Al-Jaburi is reported to have provided financial support and services to AQI. Al-Jaburi worked with an AQI jihadist umbrella organization, the Mujahadin Shura Council, to fund Sunni extremist operations. Additionally, Al-Jaburi’s television station broadcast recruitment videos for AQI’s Abu Bakr Al-Sadiq Al Salafi Battalion.”
The Treasury Department clearly refutes the notion that public rifts prohibit mutually-beneficial dealings between state sponsors like Syria and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and it is not the only such example. In May, the Treasury Department blacklisted Saad Uqayyid Ubayd Mujil Al-Shammari, a senior Al-Qaeda operative working out of Syria, as well as another al-Qaeda member going by the name of Abu Khalaf, who is said to manage the movement of money and personnel into Iraq.
The Reform Party of Syria, a U.S.-based democratic opposition group, has prepared a report indicating that the Assad regime is increasing its support to terrorists. Two sources mentioned in the report note that Syria is even going so far as to train “elements of Al-Qaeda” preparing operations in Europe. The report stated:
“The trainees are arriving in Lebanon from different Arab countries, then entering Syria from southeast Lebanon via villages along the border facing south of the Zabdani between Route 7 and the Lebanese borders. This area, north of Quneitra, is easily accessible to Damascus yet remote enough for operations. The source had no information of where these elements were being trained in Syria.”
The Syrian government’s support for al-Qaeda-linked groups has also been used to damage political opponents. Fatah al-Islam serves as a case in point. This group was led by Shakir al-Abssi, a former office in Syria’s air force, who has been sentenced to death in absentia for his collaboration with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the assassination of the U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Jordan. Abssi originally was part of Fatah al-Intifada, a terrorist group seen as a Syrian puppet, until he was arrested by the Syrian authorities in 2000 and put in jail for three years for smuggling arms into Jordan. Immediately after being released, he went to Iraq and fought Coalition forces alongside al-Qaeda. He rejoined Fatah al-Intifada in Lebanon in 2005, but then left the group and formed Fatah al-Islam in 2006.
Abssi has denied that Fatah al-Islam is part of al-Qaeda, but admits that they share the same ideology and that he agrees with their targeting of civilians. However, Fatah al-Islam is described as an al-Qaeda affiliate by the State Department, and the group does work with Asbat al-Ansar, another affiliate that is financed by al-Qaeda.
Professor Barry Rubin goes so far as to accuse al-Abssi of being a Syrian agent. He mentions that instead of extraditing him to Jordan as demanded, the Syrians gave him a very light jail sentence. Rubin says that there is no evidence that al-Abssi actually was ever put in jail, and notes that two into the three years he was supposed to be in jail, he was back working as a terrorist.
Regardless of whether al-Abssi was a Syrian agent or just a partner, the Syrian government remains a sponsor of Fatah al-Islam. Prime Minister Siniora of Lebanon has written a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General about this issue, saying that interrogations of Fatah members confirmed that there was direct contact between senior Syrian intelligence officials and Fatah members. The group’s efforts parallel Syria’s own efforts to destabilize Lebanon. Fatah al-Islam has even been accused of planning to assassinate 36 individuals in Lebanon that opposed Syria, and one of the group’s bomb-makers is currently hiding in Syria. Arab press reports indicate that Fatah’s arms come from groups under Syrian control, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Fatah al-Intifada.
Captured Fatah members have also confirmed the group’s links to Syria. Ahmad Mar’i, a senior member now held in custody, is said by his brother, who is also in custody, to have served as the liaison between the group and the chief of Syrian military-intelligence, Assef Shawkat. Mar’i and Shawkat jointly smuggled an Al-Qaeda explosives expert named Abu Ahmad al-Iraqi into Lebanon to assist Fatah al-Islam, and then later brought him back to Syria. A Saudi Al-Qaeda member named Abdel Rahman Yahia, who is said to be close to Zawahiri and Bin Laden, reportedly gave Mar’i a large amount of cash and told Fatah members in Lebanon that it was acceptable to cooperate with the Syrians, even if they didn’t share the same long-term vision. Yahia then left for Syria. Other members have also Mar’i’s role as a liaison, and have described how Syria helped smuggle Fatah members into Lebanon.
The current status of al-Abssi is unclear. On December 10, 2008, Fatah al-Islam announced that he had been killed or arrested by the Syrian government. One Kuwaiti paper reports that he was assassinated after refusing to publicly place blame for terrorist attacks in Lebanon and Syria on Saad al-Hariri and his political bloc which opposed the Syrian government and Hezbollah.
This may be accurate, as shortly after an American raid into Syria to capture Abu Ghadiyah, a senior Al-Qaeda member that oversaw a network of foreign fighters flowing into Iraq, the Syrian government portrayed itself as a target of such terrorists by blaming Fatah al-Islam for a bombing in Damascus two months prior. The Syrians aired confessions of those arrested for their involvement in the attack supposedly admitting that they were linked to Hariri’s political party. Given this attempt to malign its political opponents, it would be reasonable to expect the Syrian government to justify future intervention in Lebanon by making similar claims in the future.
Unlikely though it may seem, Syria’s support for Islamic jihadists is actually a kind of public relations strategy: It creates the appearance that there is no better alternative to the regime. To win Western backing, Assad uses the carefully crafted perception that the choice in Syria is between his dictatorial rule and the takeover of the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the individuals involved in this game was Abu Qaqa, a Syrian cleric who had converted many to radical Islam. His right-hand man, Abu Ibrahim, says that two weeks after 9-11, Qaqa and his followers celebrated in the streets. Qaqa was arrested by the Syrians, but released only hours later. By 2002, such anti-American rallies were allowed in the open, happening twice per week, and were even attended by security officials and presidential advisors.
Ibrahim says that he suspects Qaqa of working with the Syrian authorities. In 2006, after an assault on Umayyad Square in Damascus, Qaqa denied having any role and went so far as to praise the Syrian government, calling on Muslims to work with it against the U.S. and Israel. Qaqa has called for an Islamic state in Syria, yet has not been jailed. His case is especially noteworthy because it demonstrates just how closely Islamists work with the ostensibly secular regime. It cannot be called a coincidence that when Qaqa was assassinated in 2007, funeral was attended by Baath politicians.
The regime’s treatment of radicals like Qaqa stands in sharp contrast to its intolerance of liberal groups calling for free elections, human rights and democracy. While Qaqa operated openly, democratic activists, such as those who support the Damascus Declaration, are silenced. This helps to create the illusion of a choice between the Baath regime and radical Islam. Unfortunately, in reaching out to the Assad regime, the Obama administration seems to have accepted this false choice.