On July 15th 2012, Nawaf al-Fares, Syria’s former Ambassador to Iraq, defected to the opposition. Along with his defection, he called for the international community, especially the United States, to act militarily in Syria to remove President Bashar al-Asad from power. At that same time, he claimed that the al-Asad regime had aided al-Qaeda’s insurgency operations in Iraq— allowing them to transfer weapons, arms and people through Syria, and even allowing them to establish a domestic base of operations. Mr. al-Fares’ claims, however, are obviously incoherent for two big reasons:
First, al-Qaeda hates dictators, to include Bashar al-Asad. The ideology of al-Qaeda is to promote the right of self-determination for (Sunni) Muslims around the world through working to drive out foreign forces and overthrow tyrannical regimes in the Mideast.
In fact, the aims of al-Qaeda are commensurate with the professed aims of the Syrian opposition, and of the “Arab Spring” more broadly. From the beginning, al-Qaeda has embraced these revolutions, and even called for further uprisings in other authoritarian states, such as Saudi Arabia— the ends of the protestors and al-Qaeda overlap so well that in the wake of Hosni Mubarak being removed from power, there were widespread claims by Western experts that the Arab Spring had rendered al-Qaeda obsolete. For instance, Fareed Zarkaria made the following claim:
“The Arab Revolts of 2011 represent a total repudiation of al Qaeda’s founding ideology. For 20 years, al Qaeda has said that the regimes of the Arab World are nasty dictatorships and that the only way to overthrow them is to support al Qaeda and its terrorism. And then, in a few weeks, the people of the Arab World have overturned two despotic governments by means of non-violent demonstrations and they have begun a process of reform and revolution that will alter the basic bargain between the ruler and ruled in the Middle East…”
Al-Qaeda had long been working against Mubarak, Gaddafi, and al-Asad (as they had also worked against the late Hussein). During the Libya intervention, al-Qaeda fighters were quick to show up and assist the NATO mission— in fact, an al-Qaeda detainee released from Guantanamo Bay became one of the more prolific leaders of the rebellion.
Al-Qaeda similarly endorsed the Syrian uprising. Soon into the Syrian protests, al-Qaeda began bombing targets in Damascus— and have increasingly stepped up their involvement. In fact, al-Qaeda has openly called for a “violent jihad” in Syria, without compromise or “illusions of peacefulness” until the Alawite government is overthrown. So, the idea that President al-Asad had willingly hosted large numbers of these fighters in his country is preposterous— they would be as much of a threat to him as they would be to U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Second, al-Qaeda hates religious minorities, especially Islamic sects like the Alawites. In addition to al-Qaeda’s political agenda to empower Sunni Muslims, there is a religious agenda to purge the Middle East of false religions, to include Christianity and Judaism, but beginning with “deviant” Islamic sects. In fact, most of al-Qaeda’s victims are other Muslims— specifically, of minority sects: Druze, Shia, Alawites, Sufis, etc.
Bashar al-Asad’s government is dominated by the Alwaite religious sect. His primary allies in the region are (Shiite) Iran and Hezbollah. This alliance was happy to see Saddam Hussein go— he was a bulwark against Iranian influence and Hezbollah operations, and he had viciously suppressed his domestic Shia majority to promote Sunni secularism.
While al-Qaeda also wanted to see Saddam go due to Saddam’s secularist-leanings (another reason, by the way, they hated Bashar al-Asad)— and while all parties involved were paranoid of a large Western presence in the crux of the Middle East— al-Qaeda and Syria had radically different views on how the post-Saddam Iraq should look.
The idea that President al-Asad would host fighters in his country who want little more than to kill the very minority groups who prop up his government— minority groups of which he, himself, is a member— in order to send them to Iraq, where they would work to ensure that the new government was a Sunni theocracy, effectively ensuring that Syria and its allies would have no influence in this critical emerging state— this claim is ludicrous.
How much does al-Qaeda hate these religious minorities? They were too hardcore for Osama Bin Laden! In his correspondences, he frequently chastised his subordinates, claiming they had become so consumed with cleansing these minority populations and other apostates that they had neglected their primary mission. Daily, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan al-Qaeda attacks minority groups and their religious sites. The “thousands and thousands” of Iraqi’s whose deaths were caused by al-Qaeda? Many of them would have been the very sort of people who would support al-Asad or his alliance (secularists, religious minorities, etc.).
In short, al-Qaeda would have detested President al-Asad on the grounds that he is a dictator, as well as the grounds that he is of a minority sect— specifically, he represents a minority population who is oppressing a Sunni majority— and for the sake of instituting a secular government, no less! Al-Qaeda would never consider President al-Asad as an ally— nor would the President consider al-Qaeda to be a strategic asset. After all, at the time, the President was trying to bring Syria more fully into the international community. In fact, the Syrian government went so far as to torture terrorism suspects on the behalf of the United States.
Al-Qaeda in Syria?
Rather than travelling to Iraq through Syria, it is more likely that a good number of these fighters reached Iraq through Saudi Arabia— consider: Saudi Arabia has a longer border with Iraq than Syria does, it is logistically easier to travel to Saudi Arabia than through the Levant, and it is Saudis who are the primary funders of the al-Qaeda organization. In fact, according to the Sinjar Records, Saudis were the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Iraq. This is not to say that there were no al-Qaeda in Syria. But to the extent that al-Qaeda passed through Syria, it was without the President’s knowledge or consent. Likely, if he had direct knowledge of these fighters, he would have had them purged.
In 2008 the United States launched a targeted strike at an al-Qaeda camp in Syria. Prior to this attack, President al-Asad had been working hard to clamp down on trafficking through Syria. In all likelihood, it was Sunni dissidents who hosted these fighters– Bashar has had to deal with these sorts of troubles (to include the current military defections) as a result of his increasing incorporation of the Sunni majority into the government and armed forces (as part of his reform agenda). In fact, the area in question is, indeed, a Sunni area of the country.
The strongest criticism that the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) could make regarding the Syrian regime is that elements of the government ‘willfully ignored, and possibly abetted’ AQI’s operations in the region (the Bush Administration would later exaggerate these findings). These distinctions are important to note: by all accounts, the person tasked with overseeing that section of the country (the late Assef Shawkat) was terrified of how the President would respond upon finding out about this camp and the US strike.
The claims that President al-Asad had worked with al-Qaeda are a transparently cynical ploy by the exiled al-Fares to endear himself to Western powers— he is feeding them exactly what they want to hear: we must intervene in Syria, Bashar has ties to al-Qaeda and is responsible for American deaths. We saw the same sorts of incredulous claims in the lead-up to the Iraq War— Saddam, it was held, had deep ties to al-Qaeda and had been involved in the 9/11 attacks. There was plenty of “evidence” for these claims as well— and the mass media played an integral role in convincing the public of their reality. Of course, it turned out that these allegations were false. And this is to say nothing of the similar framing being drawn vis a vis “red lines” and “imminent threats to the world” regarding WMD’s, chemical weapons, etc.
10 years after the Iraq war, universally held as an immense disaster which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, killed more Americans than it saved, and bankrupted the federal economy— one would think the public would be more skeptical/ hesitant, and that the media would be more cautious and thorough. And one would be wrong on both counts, it seems.