Checkmate: Iran and Assad’s Support of Al Qaeda

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is in a gory battle with Al-Qaeda and he’s waging it with help from his Iranian allies—but they are supporting Al-Qaeda at the same time. This contradiction is best explained by a sophisticated political strategy to position Assad as the better of two evils.

The Assad regime in Syria has a long history of supporting Islamist terrorists, including Al-Qaeda. It gave Assad the ability to wage a deniable proxy war and the ability to point to Islamist radicals for political purposes.

The violent reaction to the Mohammed cartoons in 2006 is a pristine example. The Assad regime instigated and organized the anti-Western protests that erupted in Syria. A confidential source told the U.S. that Assad was sending a message: “We are the only thing standing between you and the Islamist hordes.”

Apologists for Assad would point to Al-Qaeda’s condemnations of his rule and ideological incompatibility with his regime, but that’s the exact reason he used them. The U.S. publicly identified and sanctioned Al-Qaeda operatives in Syria that Assad refused to neutralize.

In January 2008, the U.S. government sanctioned the owner of Zawraa T.V., an anti-American propaganda station. The Treasury Department said, “Despite being publicly critical of al-Qai’da in Iraq (AQI)…[he] worked with an AQI jihadist umbrella organization.”

Immediately after the rebellion against Assad began, he played the Islamist card. One of Assad’s first reactions to the protests was to make a supposed concession by releasing 270 political prisoners. All but 14 were Islamists. He decided it was better for him that the radicals operate out in the open. He then permitted the registering of an Islamist political party run by his close friend.

The secular democratic elements of the Syrian opposition saw right through it. Riad al-Turk, a prominent opposition leader, said Assad was “trying to scare us by invoking chaos or civil war, using the threat of the Islamists taking over and arguing that our people are not yet qualified to practice democracy.”

New reports indicate Assad is still playing this Islamist card. According to The Telegraph’s Western intelligence sources, Assad has been doing business since the spring of 2013 with Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS), Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria and Iraq.

The terrorist groups are selling oil and gas from the wells they control to the regime. The terrorists are happy because they make money and the regime doesn’t blow up their oil infrastructure. Assad is happy because his forces get fuel, the terrorists protect the oil and Al-Qaeda is the face of his opposition.

Some Syrian rebels argue that the Assad regime uses less firepower on Al-Qaeda elements because he wants terrorists to remain the strongest rebel force. A former member of ISIS amazingly said, “We were confident that the regime would not bomb us. We always slept soundly in our bases.”

Assad is also inexplicably releasing terrorists from prison to rejoin the rebel forces. Some are even leaders in ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham group. In some cases, these may be turncoats sent by the regime to infiltrate the rebels.

“[ISIS] has become greatly infiltrated by the Syrian regime,” admitted one assistant to an ISIS emir.

The Syrian National Coalition, the opposition umbrella, recently released documents showing that several of the top ISIS leaders used to belong to the Syrian military. The Coalition claims it has proof that these leaders passed intelligence on the rebel forces to Assad and helped his forces win battles against the non-Al-Qaeda rebels.

The Coalition also pointed out that the Syrian air force never bombs the easily-identifiable ISIS camps. When the rebels took over ISIS sites, they found that some members had Syrian ID cards and passports showing they had been to Iran.

The Iranian role in propping up Al-Qaeda in Syria is more substantive than Assad’s. Earlier this month, the U.S. Treasury Department confirmed that Al-Qaeda has a leadership council in Iran that is transferring personnel and money to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria through Turkey.

The Al-Qaeda network in Iran “operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities,” the U.S. government said. The preservation of the Assad regime is a top goal of Iran’s, yet Iran is helping those at war with Assad. This only makes sense if Iran believes that Al-Nusra’s presence is beneficial to Assad.

The reason Iran and Assad believe this is because it’s true. If the Syrian rebels were led by anti-Islamist moderates, Western aid would flow and many more Syrians would join them. Instead, many Syrians (especially Allawites and Christians) cling to the regime because they know the horrors they’ll face if Islamists take over.

But this isn’t only about Syria. This collusion with Al-Qaeda threatens the West. It means that Assad and Iran are helping terrorists carve out a safe harbor in Syria and are helping Al-Qaeda to sustain its network as a whole.

A State Department official said that this network is also “assisting in the movement of Al-Qaeda external operatives to the West.” The Long War Journal listed three terrorist plots against the West that the Al-Qaeda network in Iran has been implicated in: A series of attacks in Europe in 2010; the planned derailment of a train going from the U.S. to Canada last year and a plan to attack the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

This is nothing new. In fact, the 9/11 Commission report concluded that many of the 9/11 hijackers transited Iran. The Iranian authorities were instructed not to stamp their passports, easing their access to Europe and the U.S. Just like today, Iran allowed Al-Qaeda an important passageway. This contributed to a judge’s ruling in 2011 that Iran and Hezbollah bear responsibility for the 9/11 attacks.

The Obama Administration has long known about this network in Iran. In 2009, the Treasury Department accused Iran and Al-Qaeda of having a “secret deal.” It has been led by Yasin al-Sura since 2005, except for when al-Suri was temporarily detained by Iran because of the attention he was getting. Iran simply allowed another Al-Qaeda member to replace him. Al-Suri was recently freed.

The Persians invented chess and that accomplishment is a strong part of the Iranian identity. By making it a choice between Assad and Al-Qaeda, they have checkmated their enemies.

 


Ryan Mauro
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org's Shillman Fellow and national security analyst and an adjunct professor of counter-terrorism. He is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio.

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