This article uses publicly available evidence from 2003-2010 to explore the accusation that Bashar al Assad and the Syrian government deliberately supported Al-Qaeda jihadis in Syria so they could carry out attacks in Iraq. As these years were the formative ones for ISIS, then known by a series of different names, the evidence strongly, but not conclusively, points to Syria having helped ISIS form. There is no evidence that Syria intended for the jihadi group to grow into what it has become, but rather that Syria seems to have supported it for short-term, strategic ends.
Late last fall, a series was released by the Daily Beast about Bashar Al-Assad and his government’s supposed role in the formation of ISIS. Part One explored how the regime facilitated jihadis in Syria from 2000-2010 by letting them base themselves in Syria. Part Two details how a series of bombings in Damascus in late 2011 and early 2012 when the uprisings in Syria were really gaining steam were actually carried out by the Assad regime and blamed on Al-Qaeda. The defectors interviewed claim this was done to sectarianize the uprising and provide support for Assad’s discourse that he was fighting terror and needed Western support doing this. Part Three explores all the instances on the battlefield in Syria where the regime supposedly avoided clashing with ISIS. The claims in the series, especially those in part one, have been present in pubic discourse for some time and were expressed in a more detailed form with citations by Charles Lister in his “The Syrian Jihad“. Can the claims that come from defectors and anti-regime rebels be corroborated in these other sources? What kinds of sources do these other works use and can they help us triangulate the issues?
I won’t go into the backgrounds of each author- Lister and Gutman- readers can do that for themselves and decide for themselves if they think the background/employer is relevant here. From my point of view, news organizations certainly develop or lose credibility over time but a serious critique of the piece can’t stop at reputation, it has to look at the sources. I will go through Lister’s sources and other publicly available sources, to see if they correspond here with what defectors claim, and if this story holds water. Let’s look at the news sources in particular- as I am going through Lister’s sources and following where the trail leads, this will only be roughly chronological, while primarily following the sources.
DIGGING INTO THE SOURCES (2003-2004)
The first source, Ghaith Abdel Ahad in the Washington Post (6/5/04) interviews a Syrian man, Abu Ibrahim, about his work helping fighters move out of Syria into Iraq to fight against US forces. The story here, cited by Lister, a full seven years before the beginning of uprisings in Syria, is almost identical to what the Daily Beast recounts. His own story of radicalization, interestingly, comes from 7 years in Saudi Arabia, exposure to Wahhabism, and finding a welcome community around Abu Qaqaa back in Aleppo upon his return. Qaqaa, in both the Daily Beast and Lister accounts, was the central figure in Aleppo quietly sponsored by the Syrian government. The rest of the piece is very good, but too long to recount here, read it for yourselves.
Another source Lister cites is “Syria’s Proxy Forces in Iraq” by Ziad K. Abdelnour (April 2003). Mr. Abdelnour has citations of his own, and they aren’t identical to those above. His account of the problems again mirrors the Daily beast and Lister, and like the latter, he connects the mobilization of jihadis to Ain al-Hilweh, the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. He compares Assad’s role in this mobilization to Hafez Al-Assad’s “war by proxy” against US and European peacekeepers in Lebanon in the early 1980s. These are the citations at the bottom of his piece, most of which cannot be easily followed as they lack the title or author and the links only go back up in the document (what’s up with that, MEI?):
That means most of Adbdelnour’s claims should not be accepted unless they can be corroborated by other sources. To follow the one branch I could from Abdelnour’s citations, I found no.10, “Arab Neighbors Queue for ticket to Martyrdom” (4/1/03), the author of which remained anonymous. It discusses how not only Syrians crossed into Iraq to fight from Syria, but that many other Arabs of various nationalities would first travel to Syria and then cross into Iraq on busses. Egypt attempted to stop its citizens from traveling to Iraq, but “[D]espite the restrictions, bus-loads of people are leaving each night from outside the Iraqi embassy in Damascus bound for Baghdad.” This piece never connects these events to Bashar al-Assad, but neutrally reports their existence independent of any accusations against Assad. After reading it one gets the impression the Syrian government was doing almost nothing to stop the phenomenon.
A bit of digging through my university’s catalogs found access to this LATimes article, “Probe Links Syria, Terror Network; Italian investigation finds the country was a hub for shuttling money and recruits to Iraq” (16 April 2003, A1) by Sebastian Rotella. I was not able to find it through a simple google search as I did with the others above. The details here give a new, robust base to the claims: Italian courts investigated the issues and found a man named Mullah Fuad, a Kurdish leader, was responsible for shuttling fighters from Syria to Iraq. This came to the attention of Italian authorities because of ongoing contact Fuad had with suspects in Italy he was trying to get to come fight. As I can’t link to the text, I took a screenshot of the abstract and header here with the url visible so any doubts about where I got it from can be addressed:
Between these first four sources, we see a broad base of different publications, each sketching out their own version of events that highly overlap with different sources. The trademarks of coordination, especially direct repetition of talking points, are not here. Readers can ultimately judge for themselves. A fifth, which I found in my own digging that isn’t cited by either Lister or Gutman is this cable from Wikileaks (3/20/03). It details how Syria closed its border with Iraq once the war started and set up camps to help refugees. It shows clearly that Syria was conscious of the border issue and at least attempted to close it. If Syria knew about this earlier and the issues continued, it supports the accusations but doesn’t prove them.
DIGGING INTO THE SOURCES (2007-2010)
The claims that Al-Qaeda was operating out of Syria to carry out attacks in Iraq are present again years later, in completely different publications. News of an Al-Qaeda in Iraq operative killed in a raid on the Syrian side of the border raised eyebrows and was detailed in “Al Qaeda in Iraq operative killed near Syrian Border Sheds light on foreign influence.” (10/03/07). “Muthanna” as he was known was apparently Al-Qaeda’s Emir of the Syria/Iraq border area. As Bill Rogio, the author, writes:
The idea that an Al-Qaeda operative would have to enroll in a security course in Syria raises the question- if this was happening in Syria, how could Assad’s government not know about it? Almost a year after Muthanna’s death, another raid carried out by US Special Forces in Syria apparently killed an Iraqi Al-Qaeda operative named Abu Ghadiya. Detalied in “Officials Say U.S. Killed an Iraqi in Raid in Syria,” (10/27/08) the raid happened in Sukkariyah. The NYT piece, as that paper is wont to do, cites unnamed intelligence officials in its account, so those claims should be considered dubitable for our purposes here.
Around the same time as the two aforementioned events by the Syria/Iraq border, a series of records were discovered in Sinjar, Iraq. A Christian Science Monitor report (1/08) looked at these records and cited a CTC study about them. The CTC study neatly summarized its main findings from the Sinjar Records, and was cited in the Daily Beast piece. Gutman quotes the piece, pointing out how “it is almost inconceivable that Syrian intelligence has not tried to penetrate these networks.” What Gutman didn’t quote, however, seems even stronger to this reader’s mind- that evidence in the Sinjar documents shows that Al-Qaeda fighters commonly had multiple coordinators in Syria (p. 25). The fighters were also asked to rate the trustworthiness these coordinators, which seems to imply that the Iraqis don’t trust those they are working with in Syria (p.25). The question, then, is if this lack of trust comes from them being smugglers that AQ thinks are ultimately putting profits first, or if it is potentially because they were from Syrian intelligence (or someone else?) If it wasn’t the Syrian government behind this in some form, then again, the question hangs in the air: how could the Syrian government not know and/or do nothing to stop it?
There is yet more evidence from this period about not only the flow of jihadis from Syria to Iraq but also Syria’s involvement. “Iraq’s Ho Chi Minh Trail” by James Denselow (5/15/08), does not point the finger at Assad but does engage with the issue of the Syria-Iraq border as the primary transit point for foreign fighters entering Iraq. A Reuters report (9/30/09) shows a different angle supporting the claims that Syria was involved. In “Iraq al Qaeda militant says Syria trained him“, a videotape of a man who identifies himself as Mohammad Hassan al-Shemari was at the center of a diplomatic row between Iraq and Syria. A bombing in Baghdad was blamed on Syria by the Iraqi government, and the video of al-Shemari was offered as evidence. Al-Shemari, a Saudi national, claims he was trained by Syria in camps known to Syrian intelligence. The Reuters story points out it was not possible to independently verify al-Shemari’s account, but readers can already see here how it lines up with other accounts.
Iraq continued to suffer from bombings that made the country’s leadership clash with Syria in August 2009. In early December of that same year, more bombings took place (four in one day) that killed more than 100 and injured several hundred more. This was detailed in “Baghdad Car Bombs Blamed on Syria and Islamists by Iraqi Government.” What is especially intriguing is that Maliki’s government, by this time falling out with Washington over its increasingly sectarian and authoritarian rule, leveled these accusations. The popular narrative goes that Iran supports both Assad and Maliki, but this fissure shows we can’t reduce geopolitics to clear outcomes on the ground. As mentioned earlier, the Iraqi government released the video of the Al-Qaeda militant and his testimony, but new evidence below supports the allegations.
The Iraqi government presented a dossier to the Syrians to support their allegations, and Martin Chulov the Guardian correspondent claimed to have seen it as well. The Iraqis claimed to have spied on a recent meeting where the attacks were planned, and that Syrian government figures as well as representatives from two Islamist militias were there. The blunt, startling accusation level by the Iraqis was:
“…that an unlikely co-operative of secular Ba’athists and militants who eschewed any form of government in favour of a return to Islamic law conspired from 30 July to pool their resources and wreak havoc during the pre-election period.” The Guardian, 12/8/09
If true, it resonates strongly with the form that ISIS takes years later. It also raises questions about the extent to which this was a continuation of the earlier practice of sponsoring jihadis like Abu Qaqaa or if this resembles that earlier phenomenon in form but is actually something else? So adding to the pile of evidence, Nouri al-Maliki’s government publicly accused Syria of abetting jihadis.
The US Government likewise published information that points to Syria. The US Department of the Treasury constantly takes part in anti-terror measures by tracing illicit flows of money. For our purposes,this report “Treasury Designates Members of Abu Ghadiyah’s Network Facilitates flow of terrorists, weapons, and money from Syria to al Qaida in Iraq” (2/28/08) details four Syrian men publicly identified as being involved in smuggling across the Syria/Iraq border. This report quotes Stuart Levy, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence as saying :
“Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Syria has become a transit station for al Qaida foreign terrorists on their way to Iraq. Abu Ghadiyah and his network go to great lengths to facilitate the flow through Syria of money, weapons, and terrorists intent on killing U.S. and Coalition forces and innocent Iraqis.” (cited above)
This report doesn’t blame the Syrian government exactly, but again it points to events and names individuals involved. I can imagine that some will be hesitant to trust public reports from the US government, but these details are broadly corroborated in a wikileaks document cited by both Lister and the Daily Beast. Let’s look at it next.
The document is dated 2/24/10. It details a surprise appearance by Syrian General Intelligence Director Ali Mamluk at a meeting between Syrian Vice Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad and an American delegation led by S/CT Daniel Benjamin. Mamluk agrees that Syria is willing to potentially work with the US on several issues of importance, especially the Syria/Iraq border, if the US is willing to change several policies of interest to the Syrians. Later in the document, Mamluk describes Syria’s approach to terrorist groups, which is to infiltrate them rather than immediately clash with them, something Mamluk insisted had been successful. It is not only quite remarkable that Mamluk would admit this to the American delegation, but he also was willing to negotiate over the Syria/Iraq border, showing that Syria knew it could do more in this regard, and held it out to the US as a diplomatic carrot.
As readers should know, the controversy around Wikileaks focuses on what the organization decides to publish, not the veracity of the documents they publish. There is no reason to suspect that either of the documents from Wikileaks I cited in this post are not real, or that any of the documents Wikileaks has put online are not real.
Finally, the last wikileaks document (2/24/10) seems to corroborate what the Gutman piece about the Syrian government claimed, that the Syrians penetrated ISIS and have constant tabs on the organization from the inside. This is exactly how Mamluk described Syria’s policy toward jihadis.
By digging into a small sample of the publicly available evidence, a number of points become clear. First, Syria features in accounts from different years and completely different media outlets in different parts of the world as the primary country that jihadis travel to before traveling on to Iraq. This is corroborated in multiple accounts spelled out above, as well as in the Sinjar records and the raids that killed Abu Ghadiya and Muthanna. This helps establish the phenomenon as real, whether or not the Syrian state was involved. As Turkey is to the Syrian War today, Syria was to the Iraq War then.
Stepping forward from this base, numerous pieces of evidence outlined above support the central claim in both The Syrian Jihad by Charles Lister and in the Daily Beast series that Bashar al-Assad’s government sponsored and facilitated this flow of jihadis. Given the timing, location, and affiliations of these jihadis, it is possible to see this as having a significant impact on salafi-jihadi groups in Iraq right when the first iterations of ISIS were forming. The evidence thus strongly supports the conclusion that Assad had a strong hand in helping the organization grow at a key time in its timeline, rather than fighting them. I agree with Lister’s conclusion that Assad seemingly wanted to control this jihadi threat and direct it away from his regime, rather than stifling it. This also broadly lines up with part of the argument in Jean Pierre Filiu’s “From Deep State to Islamic State” that authoritarian regimes tolerated or facilitated jihadis for a variety of reasons, pointing to Syria and Yemen most primarily. I realize that the evidence here is not conclusive, I don’t claim anything else. I do, however, see it as ruling out most possibilities of doubt. It comes from too many different sources, stretched across a broad swath of time, all of which significantly predates the uprisings in Syria in early 2011.