Last week, the ISIS kidnapped and executed activist Dr. Mohammed al-Abyad in Aleppo. Two days earlier, the ISIS killed an opposition poet, Mohammed Hamadeh. Last month a Free Syrian Army commander, Kamal Hamami, was shot in cold blood at a checkpoint by the ISIS. When a high-profile opponent of Assad’s is rubbed out, there’s a consistent calling card: al-Qaeda.
Assad appears OK with losing a building now and then by a car bomb — bombings that never hit too close to his home and that come with ample warning anyway. Al-Qaeda units, meanwhile, get left alone by Assad’s forces. “They never touch them,” Al Hendi said.
And in a grotesque PR stunt, they’ve even coordinated on attacks.
Former Syrian Ambassador to Iraq Nawaf Fares, a 35-year regime operative who defected in July 2012 after the killings grew to be too much, told the Telegraph of the blurred lines between regime and jihadists in attacks such as the May 2012 suicide bombings outside a military intelligence building in the Damascus suburb of al-Qazzaz.
“I know for certain that not a single serving intelligence official was harmed during that explosion, as the whole office had been evacuated 15 minutes beforehand,” Fares said. “All the victims were passers by instead. All these major explosions have been have been perpetrated by al-Qaeda through cooperation with the security forces.”
Backing up cooperation claims from other defectors and activists, Fares said the relationship goes back to 2003 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “The regime in Syria began to feel danger, and began planning to disrupt the US forces inside Iraq, so it formed an alliance with al-Qaeda,” he said. Also a onetime top security official, he said the Syrian regime still has “liaison officers” tasked to work with al-Qaeda.
In the prescient interview, Fares added: “Al-Qaeda would not carry out activities without knowledge of the regime. The Syrian government would like to use al-Qaeda as a bargaining chip with the West – to say: ‘it is either them or us.’”
Another defector, top Air Force intelligence aide Affaq Ahmad, confirmed that the jihadists don’t get into conflicts with the regime forces. “They also decline to get into fights in the coastal areas due to an agreement between them and the regime that had been brokered by the financial backers of these brigades,” Ahmad said in an interview after fleeing Syria. “Actually, the jihadist groups and brigades were very useful for the regime because they provided a justification for the regime’s insistence on a military solution, and provided some legitimacy under the cover of the War on Terror.”
Under that agreement, he added, the regime accepted the killings of minorities including Assad’s own Alawite sect “in order to use that to convince these minorities to rally around the regime and hold on to it.”
Assad has never been particularly religious and the Alawites have not been exclusively behind Assad. “He’s always used them,” Al Hendi said. “I don’t think he’s sectarian in a spiritual way; he’s using Alawites only now to protect himself.”
Al-Nusra has already admitted to being in a deal with the Assad regime — holding fast to the Deir Ezzor oil fields and reaping sweet payouts in return.
Abdulrahman Alhaj, a professor and member of the General Secretariat of the Syrian National Coalition, told PJM that Assad “has too much information about [al-Qaeda] in many ways.”
And Assad feels that if he is taken out or taken to the brink, Alhaj added, the ultimate revenge is sharing his WMDs with the terror organization — something he may do anyway in backroom deals.
“He’ll try to make it easy for them because he wants to — he will try to punish the international community,” said Alhaj. “How he can do that — he can give them his chemical weapons.”
“It’s a very dangerous scenario,” he added.
When PBS’ Charlie Rose asked Assad in a sit-down interview Sunday about what kind of retaliation could be expected if the U.S. launched airstrikes against the regime, he cryptically responded, “You should expect everything.”
“You should expect everything, not necessarily through the government. It’s not only — the governments are not only — not the only player in this region,” Assad added. “…Expect every action. Everything.”
A handful of Senate aides contacted by PJM said they didn’t know if the alliance of al-Qaeda and Assad was being discussed with lawmakers in closed-door Syria briefings.
Assad needs the situation on the ground to look chaotic enough to keep from being ousted. Al-Qaeda enjoys a safe haven and access to stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. And if Assad should fall, al-Qaeda can take advantage of the vacuum, though it does run the risk of having to deal with a president who’s not compliant like Assad.
“Assad today is trying to convince the West that he is secular and liberal and that he is fighting Islamic extremism. Those who work in the field of politics, however, know Assad’s regime very well. They know it is nothing more than an extension of the extremist political and religious Iranian regime,” Al Arabiya General Manager Abdulrahman al-Rashed wrote in March.
“His father adopted the case of Arab Baath to justify his seizure of power and continuity of sectarian rule. After him, his son sought the company of long-bearded men from supreme leader Khamenei to Hassan Nasrallah. He resorted to holding Islamic jihadi conferences in Damascus,” al-Rashed continued. “After the revolution erupted, he now speaks of secularism and claims it!”
Images of jihadist atrocities have also shown timing to play into a PR strategy, including the grisly execution video from spring 2012 released to the New York Times just as Congress was debating Syria.
In another aptly timed move, al-Qaeda declared war today on the Free Syrian Army — in particular, the secular brigades most likely to be vetted and cleared — just in time to attempt to seize CIA arms deliveries beginning to flow to the rebels.
“The Assad regime…will increase extremism in Syria,” said Alhaj. “That will affect all the people of the world.”