Assad’s terror farce at the Geneva talks
Just days before the most recent Syrian peace talks in Geneva began, a report detailing “industrial-scale” killing in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons revealed the nature of his government. Despite this setback, the regime continues to claim that it is only fighting terrorists.
While their rhetoric is convenient, the reality is that only one side of the Syrian negotiations is actively fighting al Qaeda – the opposition. Though Assad has the capacity to attack extremists, from the spring of 2011 until today he has chosen to target civilians instead.
During two weeks I just spent interviewing Syrians in the southern border towns of Turkey, I found nearly universal opposition to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the army of foreign jihadists backed by al Qaeda that has now taken over many liberated areas across Northern Syria.
Syrians decried ISIS’s brutal campaign to target aid workers, journalists, respected leaders and moderate clerics. They describe the dual terror of Assad’s airborne bombs and al Qaeda’s guns on the ground. Citizens risked their lives earlier this month to march in protest against ISIS, and the poorly-armed opposition began to push al Qaeda out of key parts of the north and reopen communities to aid.
Assad knew that the enemy of his enemy could be his friend, at least for now. His cynical but effective logic was that if he could convince the world he was fighting terrorists, we would live with his war crimes. He sowed the seeds for this in his widely mocked first speech addressing mass protests at the end of March, 2011. He then set to work making it more reality than rhetoric, releasing extremists from his own prisons to become the face of the opposition.
Historically, the administrations of both Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, have used non-state actors, including al Qaeda, to pursue foreign-policy goals. Syria is a known conduit for moving Iranian arms to Hezbollah and it also has quietly used Sunni extremists — strategically failing to police its Iraqi border after 2003.
As reported in Der Spiegle, “Assad is no stranger to cooperation with radical Islamists, and many jihadists who were held at Sednaya were actually encouraged by the Syrian regime to undertake campaigns for Islam in the past.”
Many Syrians in interviews would list the names of extremists Assad has let out of prison whom they now see leading attacks on their communities. Many in the West fell for this and viewed small bands of al Qaeda fighters as part of the opposition, rather than a brutal second front attacking Syria’s population and targeting the moderates and human-rights activists who most threatened Assad.
New revelations emerged last week in Geneva that suggest even more robust coordination between the regime and al Qaeda. Western intelligence agencies told The Daily Telegraph last weekend that the Assad regime has acted as a middleman for al Qaeda’s sale of oil from fields it controls in the north of the country — allowing crude oil to travel through regime-controlled territory. These oil sales are a crucial component of al Qaeda funding and a major reason why they are better equipped than more moderate rebels.
Also curious is the lack of regime aggression toward al Qaeda. The Syrian media activist Rami Jarrah, who confronted regime representatives last week, pointed this out. Offering precise coordinates, Jarrah asked why the Assad regime claims to be fighting terrorists, yet refuses to bomb the known ISIS headquarters in Raqqa.
In interviews, Syrians note that Assad and ISIS never attack each other, but instead target the same civilians. As one ISIS defector told the Daily Telegraph, “We were confident that the regime would not bomb us.”
The Syrian Christian human rights activist Michel Kilo reported that several al Qaeda emirs who were active in Syria were part of Syrian intelligence. Kilo argues that al Qaeda in Syria has been virtually created by Syrian intelligence services. Former members of regime intelligence fill key leadership roles and use their regional networks to recruit jihadists.
Some of these connections are clear and others need verification, but there is no doubt that Assad has benefited from al Qaeda activity in Syria. The group’s presence has allowed the Syrian president to muddy the global narrative about war crimes against his own people, and sow fear that the only thing worse than him is the alternative. Assad has also benefited from ISIS’s systematic targeting of the most respected and moderate local leaders and activists — particularly those who had the greatest support among Syrians and the international community.
In a strategy of breathtaking cynicism, Assad has enabled the very extremists he always claimed were Syria’s greatest threat.
After Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts, the most relevant parties are now at the table in Geneva. While Assad’s team is using the forum to claim that it is fighting terrorists, the under-sourced armed opposition is the force actually fighting al Qaeda on the battlefield.
Peace in Syria is paramount. But we should be skeptical of the “good faith” efforts of a regime that would rather foment an extremist movement made of foreigners than engage seriously with its own citizens.
PHOTO (TOP) : Soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad are seen in the countryside of Aleppo city, after a succession of victories over the mainly Islamist rebels holding the southeastern approaches to Syria’s former commercial hub in this handout by Syria’s national news agency SANA on November 10, 2013. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters
PHOTO (INSERT): President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Turkey’s Halk TV in Damascus, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria’s national news agency SANA on October 4, 2013. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters