The idea that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deliberately militarized the Syrian uprising and sought to support extremist rebel groups, including ISIS, has been repeated often in the Western press. As proof of such claims, critics of the Syrian government suggest that Assad deliberately released Islamists from Syrian jails; that the Syrian army has not fought ISIS, and that Assad sought to support ISIS by purchasing oil from the terror group. It is argued that Assad took these measures to sabotage the peaceful, democratic uprising he allegedly faced, and in order to convince the West that he was fighting terrorists rather than peaceful pro-democracy protesters. It is presumed that if Assad could be successful in this, the United States would have no choice but to embrace the Syrian government as a partner in the so-called War on Terror against ISIS and other extremist groups, considering Assad the lesser evil. Articles to this effect have appeared in Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Independent (UK), the Wall Street Journal, and Der Spiegel, among others.
In fact the Syrian army has fought ISIS throughout the conflict, as detailed by Syria analyst Aymenn al-Tamimi. The Syrian government has purchased oil from ISIS, but out of necessity, as have US-backed rebel groups and even Western-funded NGOs, as I have detailed here.
In this essay, I will discuss the claim that Assad deliberately released Islamist prisoners in order to militarize and radicalize the Syrian uprising. These claims stem from a January 2014 article published by the state-owned newspaper of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the National, which claimed that “Syrian intelligence agencies released Islamist militants from prison to deliberately subvert a peaceful uprising and ignite a violent rebellion,” citing an anonymous former Syrian intelligence official. The National article refers to events in April, May and June 2011, when the Syrian government announced its intention to release thousands of prisoners as part of a series of general amnesties.
I will first provide a brief overview of the reasons why claims that Assad deliberately released Islamist prisoners in order to militarize the Syrian protest movement are likely false, after which I will discuss each of these reasons in more detail.
First, while Assad did release Islamist prisoners in the early weeks and months of the uprising as part of a general amnesty, the Syrian government did so in response to demands from the Syrian opposition itself. The Washington Post reported in May 2011 that, “the amnesty could affect about 10,000 people who Syrian activists say have been rounded up since the anti-government protests broke out in mid-March. The release of political prisoners has been a key demand of the opposition [emphasis mine].”
But why did Assad release many Islamist prisoners, rather than only secular pro-democracy activists? This is because, contrary to the mainstream view, the Syrian opposition was not for the most part secular. Instead, much of the Syrian opposition was dominated by Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian government’s long time enemy.
The Muslim Brotherhood led a violent insurrection and assassination campaign against the Syrian state from 1976-82 which was infamously suppressed by Hafez al-Assad, the then president of Syria and father of Bashar al-Assad, during the events in Hama. Though defeated on the ground in Syria, the exiled Brotherhood leadership remained committed to regime change in Syria, including through armed struggle. As a result, the Syrian government banned membership in the Brotherhood, and detained many Syrians (executing some) for having Brotherhood ties. Consequently, when unrest erupted throughout the Middle East as part of the Arab Spring in 2011, many of the political prisoners already languishing in Syrian jails were Islamists affiliated with the Brotherhood.
After years of organized opposition to the Syrian government, the Brotherhood was well placed to leverage the popular dissatisfaction many Syrians felt due to the authoritarianism and corruption of the Syrian government, and due to the poor economic situation many Syrians faced, in particular in the countryside, after years of drought. Members of the Brotherhood founded the Syria Revolution 2011 Facebook page, the mechanism through which most anti-government demonstrations in Syria were organized, and the main conduit through which news of the uprising was disseminated to Western and Gulf media outlets. The Brotherhood also came to largely control the main opposition group abroad, the Syrian National Council (SNC) which received most of its funding from the religious fundamentalist governments in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. As a result, many (but certainly not all) Syrians arrested for participating in the early protests were Islamists.
The Syrian opposition, largely Islamist as it was, was therefore demanding the release of not just secular but also Islamist prisoners. It is therefore obvious that Assad would have to release not only secular but also Islamist prisoners if he hoped to diffuse the crisis and avoid the fate of other recently deposed Arab leaders, namely Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia.
The Syrian government did not seek to hide the release of Islamist prisoners. It openly announced at the time that members of the Muslim Brotherhood would be among those released during the amnesties announced in March, May, and June 2011. The release of Islamist prisoners was accompanied by other concessions to conservative religious segments of Syrian society as well, including closing casinos and revoking a ban on Syrian teachers wearing the niqab (headscarf for women covering the hair and face), further suggesting Assad attempted to placate those in the opposition who were most determined to see him deposed.
In response, the Syrian opposition did not object to the release of Islamist prisoners. Rather, these measures, and other announced reforms, were quickly dismissed by the Syrian opposition, as well as by Western leaders, as insufficient, as both continued to demand that Assad step down.
This does not mean that Assad offered these concessions out of humanitarian or ethical concerns. Likely, he simply felt that offering limited concessions to the opposition would diffuse the pressure he faced (from both within Syria and abroad) to step down, thus preserving his power and allowing him to continue ruling the country. The Syrian government deserves harsh criticism for waiting to implement such reforms and release political prisoners until it was pressured to do so. Nonetheless, by accepting only regime change, the opposition lost an opportunity to win real democratic gains (if indeed that was their goal) and helped push the country further toward civil war, an inevitable outcome given that many Syrians genuinely supported Assad and the Syrian government.
Second, the United States and its Arab allies, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are the parties responsible for providing weapons and funding for extremist rebel groups in Syria. Zahran Alloush and Hassan Aboud are examples of prisoners released by the Syrian government during the 2011 amnesty who went on to become leaders of rebel groups, Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) and Ahrar al-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), respectively. Both groups advocated Salafi-Jihadi ideology and received significant financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, respectively, thus helping to militarize the Syrian opposition. That both Alloush and Aboud (and others) were released from prison by Syrian authorities would not be significant if not for the funding and weapons they later received from America’s Gulf allies. Because US planners wished to topple the Syrian government, it was in their interest to use Salafi-Jihadi rebel groups to do so, mimicking the strategy US planners employed in Afghanistan during the 1980’s and Libya in 2011.
Also significant is the fact that the militarization of the Syrian uprising was already well underway before the prisoner releases due to the government announced amnesties could have had an effect on the nature of the uprising. One fighter from Ahrar al-Sham claimed to Time magazine that the rebel group began forming brigades even before March 2011, which is when the Syrian uprising is generally considered to have begun. Other Ahrar al-Sham fighters acknowledged that foreign fighters, including from Saudi Arabia, were joining the group to fight in Syria as early as May 2011. In mid-June 2011, even US officials acknowledged to the New York Times that the “makings of an armed insurgency have begun to emerge.” Syria analyst Aron Lund writes that “Turkish-Qatari support [for the opposition] seems to have arrived early on and was channeled through Islamist networks that included Muslim Brotherhood figures moving guns from civil-war Libya.” Former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, who oversaw Syria operations on behalf of Qatar until 2013, himself admitted to supporting armed rebel groups from early in the uprising, with the backing of Saudi Arabia and, crucially, the United States. Al-Thani explained that “When the events first started in Syria I went to Saudi Arabia and met with King Abdullah” who supported al-Thani’s efforts to send weapons to rebels in Syria, with help from Turkey and “in coordination with US forces.” As a result, if Assad wished to see the uprising militarized, there is no action he needed to take, as America’s regional allies were already taking steps to assure this outcome.
Additionally, it would not make sense for Assad to appeal to the United States for help in fighting terrorism, when it was the United States that had an interest in deposing Assad, and when it was the United States that was supporting the very rebel groups Assad considered terrorists. Instead, Assad appealed to his allies for help, namely Russia and Iran, both of which had a strong interest in keeping him in power. Assad did not ask the United States for help in fighting terrorists, nor did he try to “ingratiate himself with the Western leaders,” as some claim. Rather, he asked the United States and its Western and Gulf allies to stop funding and arming terrorists. When Salafi-Jihadi rebel groups, including ISIS, came closest to toppling Assad in 2015, Russia intervened to save him. US officials complained bitterly.
Third, it is not reasonable to assume that Assad would deliberately start an armed insurgency against his own government (nor is it reasonable to believe that any leader would do so). Many of those who accuse Assad of supporting extremists in Syria starting in 2011 cite as proof of this that Assad also collaborated with extremists from al-Qaeda during the Iraq war starting in 2003, allowing them to pass through Syria to fight US forces. If Assad did deliberately execute such a strategy, this would not be surprising. It would have been in his interest to do so, as US planners had threatened to invade Syria after invading Iraq. However, it would be extremely surprising for Assad to also deliberately employ the exact same strategy against his own government and security forces that he allegedly used so successfully against his American enemies in Iraq.
Western and Gulf media have promoted even more bizarre claims, suggesting for example that Assad killed many of his own top security officials, including his defense minister and his own brother-in-law, in a false flag terrorist bombing on orders from Iran. Such claims are yet stranger when considering that the bombing occurred in the context of a major rebel offensive to try to conquer Damascus. Rebel groups celebrated the bombing and expressed confidence the Assad government was on the verge of collapsing. Of the bombing, Reuters reported that “Jubilant, the rebels claimed responsibility, boasting that they had pulled off what they called ‘a turning point in Syria’s history’, hailing the attack as ‘the beginning of the end.’” And, yet some Syria commentators still claim that it was somehow in Assad’s and Iran’s interest to carry out such a false flag bombing.
Fourth, simply releasing prisoners that later fought for extremists groups does not tell us much about the intent of the party releasing them. The US military has released many prisoners (for example, from Camp Bucca in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba) who were either members of, or went on to join, militant groups and carry out attacks against US targets after their release. The most famous of these is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. One ISIS member described his time with al-Baghdadi in the US-run prison at Bucca as “an academy,” and as crucial to the creation of the organization. This provides no proof that US planners intended to create ISIS by releasing Baghdadi (and the Western press would never suggest as much). More likely, the US military did not know or understand who and how dangerous some of these prisoners were. The same may have been true of the Syrian government when it released Islamist prisoners.
In other cases, the Syrian government knew it was releasing prisoners widely considered terrorists, but not for the reasons critics suggest. The Syrian government released 9/11 plotter Mohammad Haydar Zammar from prison, but not in 2011 as part of the prisoner amnesties, but in 2013 as part of a prisoner exchange with Qatar-backed Ahrar al-Sham, in order to free captured Syrian army officers, and long after the Syrian insurgency had become dominated by jihadists. Nonetheless, Syrian opposition figures claim that the Syrian government released Zammar in order to create ISIS.
The propensity of the Western and Gulf media to level bizarre claims against the Syrian government, while refusing to make similar claims against the US government is highlighted by the case of al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front) leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. The National reported the rumor that Jolani was among those prisoners released by the Syrian government. Newsweek then uncritically repeated this claim. By the time the National and Newsweek articles were published, it had already been established by Iraqi and Jordanian intelligence (and reported by the Times of Israel) that Jolani had not been imprisoned by the Syrian government at all. Instead, Jolani been imprisoned previously by the US military in Iraq, which then released him in 2008. ISIS leader Baghdadi then sent Jolani to Syria to found the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in response to the unrest starting in 2011. Despite this error, accusations that Assad deliberately supports ISIS remain, while the idea that the Western and Gulf press would accuse the US government of deliberately supporting ISIS by releasing prisoners such as al-Baghdadi and al-Jolani remains unthinkable.
Fifth, the supposed evidence that Assad released Islamist prisoners specifically for the purpose of discrediting the supposedly peaceful, secular opposition movement comes from biased sources. As mentioned above, the initial claim that Assad released Islamist prisoners to militarize the Syrian uprising originated in the National, the state-owned newspaper of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). UAE foreign policy has supported regime change in Syria, in concert with its Gulf neighbors, giving the National an interest in promoting anti-Syrian government claims, reliable or not. The National article also relied on either anonymous former Syrian security officials or members of the Syrian opposition (who also have interest in deposing Assad, of course) as sources. Claims from biased sources may well be accurate, but additional evidence is necessary to confirm such claims. They should not be taken at face value. Just as official Syrian government sources are biased and cannot be considered reliable without supporting evidence, nor should claims by members of the Syrian opposition be considered reliable without evidence.
That the National’s claims were then eagerly repeated in the Western press is not surprising as the US and UK governments have long advocated a policy of fomenting regime change in Syria as well. Such media outlets, while feigning independence, are typically supportive of US foreign policy, and would have an interest in blaming Assad for the rise of religious extremists, in order to deflect blame from the US and Gulf governments, who were themselves responsible for doing just that.
All of this suggests that Western and opposition claims that Assad sought to militarize and radicalize the Syrian opposition are likely propaganda, meant to de-legitimize the Syrian state, in an effort to destabilize and topple it. Another indication these claims are likely propaganda is that they seem to be deliberately designed to play on Western fears of Islam and Muslims. Suggesting that Assad is releasing supposedly scary, violent, barbaric Muslims from prison is an easy way to demonize the Syrian government in the eyes of a Western audience already fearful of Islam after 15 years of the so-called War on Terror. However, there is nothing objectionable that Muslims and even Islamists constitute much of the Syrian opposition, or participated in anti-government protests.
What is objectionable is that these Islamists were pushed toward violence by foreign powers such as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in an effort to topple an admittedly authoritarian and corrupt but previously stable Syrian state, plunging the country into a state of civil war. Whatever the merits (or lack thereof) of the Syrian state, Syrians do not benefit when the country is ripped apart by violence instigated by foreign powers seeking their own agenda. Also objectionable is that these Islamists have promoted intolerant, fringe, fundamentalist religious ideas (takfirism). Such ideas are largely foreign to Syrians (having originated in Saudi Arabia), including to Syrian Sunnis, and incite violence against religious minorities.
Prisoners Released in Response to the Demands of the Opposition
The simplest explanation as to why Assad released Islamist prisoners from Syrian jails at the start of the Syrian uprising is that this was a demand of the Syrian opposition itself, from the very beginning of the uprising, and that Assad acquiesced to this demand in an effort to diffuse the crisis.
Most assume the Syrian uprising began on March 15, 2011 when protests broke out after Syrian officials detained 15 youths in Deraa for writing anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school. It is clear that releasing prisoners was a demand of the opposition from the very beginning. Time reported on March 22, 2011 that “Assad responded immediately, sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead. The governor was cashiered, and the 15 kids released. But according to at least two dissident websites, protesters have given the Syrian government until the morning of March 25 to meet a list of demands that were relayed to the President by his delegation. If the demands are not met, they threaten, March 25 will become the ‘Friday of the Martyrs’ . . . Assad is unlikely to meet demands that include lifting the 48-year-old emergency law and releasing all political prisoners [Emphasis mine].”
In response, the Syrian government quickly announced a prisoner amnesty. The Australian reported on March 26, 2011 that “Syrian authorities released more than 200 prisoners from Saydnaya, mainly Islamists, after the prisoners had submitted signed requests for their release” and that “The government of President Bashar al-Assad announced a string of reforms on Thursday, including the release of all activists detained this month and the possibility of ending emergency rule, in place since 1963.” Anti-government protests continued, however.
Five weeks later, the issue of political prisoners was still paramount. The Washington Post reported on May 31, 2011 that the Syrian government-announced a further amnesty, which “could affect about 10,000 people who Syrian activists say have been rounded up since the anti-government protests broke out in mid-March. The release of political prisoners has been a key demand of the opposition [emphasis mine].”
Three weeks later, Assad gave a public speech about the crisis at Damascus University in which he announced additional prisoners would be released. al-Jazeera reported that “Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has ordered a new general amnesty for all crimes committed in the country up until June 20, in another apparent attempt to calm months of protests against his rule. The state news agency, SANA, announced the move on Tuesday, nearly a month after Assad issued a similar amnesty for all political crimes. . . The president ordered a reprieve on May 31 for all political prisoners in the country, including members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.”
After the speech, Syria scholar David Lesch remarked that “President Bashar actually believes that he’s making serious concessions,” suggesting that Assad was sincerely attempting to meet at least some opposition demands. It must not be the case that Assad was offering what he viewed as serious concessions out of humanitarian or ethical concerns. He may simply have felt that making concessions to the Syrian opposition would have helped resolve the crisis, thus keeping him in power. The desire to remain in power is a crucial factor in explaining any ruler’s decision making process. That Assad would agree to limited concessions in order to de-escalate protests seems much more plausible than that he deliberately started an armed insurgency led by religious extremists against his own government and security forces.
But Why Did Assad Release Islamist Prisoners?
But why did Assad release specifically Islamist prisoners? Isn’t this proof that Assad was executing a plot to derail the peaceful, secular, pro-democracy protest movement? Reports in the Western press highlighting the Islamist character of many of the released prisoners take as given that the Syrian opposition was secular and that the uprising was initially peaceful. If such a view were correct, it would seem odd and conspiratorial if Assad released Islamist prisoners, some of whom went on to join or lead extremist rebel groups. Such a view of the Syrian opposition and uprising is incorrect however. The Syrian uprising was not initially peaceful, as attacks on Syrian police and soldiers coincided with anti-government protests from the beginning, and jihadist armed groups began organizing before the protests erupted. The opposition was also not primarily secular. Instead, it was largely dominated by Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, when the Syrian opposition was demanding the Syrian government release prisoners, this means it was demanding the release of Islamist prisoners. If Assad wished to meet this demand, in an attempt to diffuse the crisis, he had no choice but to release Islamists.
Islamist Influence on the Syrian Opposition
Suggestions that the Syrian opposition was initially secular, only to be later hijacked by Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood, as Syria analyst Hassan Hassan claims, are simply not correct. The influence of the Muslim Brotherhood within the protest movement on the ground in Syria and on the political opposition in exile was significant, though largely obscured in media reports about events in Syria during this early period. The Brotherhood has long comprised the backbone of the opposition to the Syrian government.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had a strong interest in starting an armed insurrection in Syria in 2011, as elements of the Brotherhood had been committed to overthrowing the Syrian state through armed struggle since the 1960’s. These efforts stem from the belief that the Syrian state, governed by the secular Arab nationalist Ba’ath party, constitutes an atheist regime that must be replaced by an Islamic government, with a Muslim at its head. The Syrian Muslim Brothers do not consider Alawites to be true Muslims, meaning that, from their perspective, the rule of Bashar al-Assad (and his father Hafez before him), is illegitimate, as the Assad family is of the Alawi sect. Liad Porat of Brandeis University noted that in the 1960’s and 70’s, one Brotherhood faction, headed by ‘Abd al-Fatah abu-Ghuda “supported a policy of coupling civil disobedience with armed struggle” and that another, yet more radical faction led my Marwan Hadid, also supported the use of violence to overthrow the state. This led to a Brotherhood led insurrection in 1976, which lasted, off and on for years, until the Syrian government finally crushed the Brothers, using considerable violence, in the well-known events in Hama in 1982. The leadership of the Brotherhood, in exile after the events of Hama, has remained committed to the overthrow of the Syrian state since that time. Porat noted that by 2009, “the movement’s leaders continue to voice their hope for a civil revolt in Syria, wherein ‘the Syrian people will perform its duty and liberate Syria from the tyrannical and corrupt regime.’”
While membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was banned by the Syrian government, and the Brotherhood leadership was in exile in the West, the group still had strong underground support in some areas of Syria, in particular Hama and Aleppo. For this reason, many of the political prisoners languishing in Syrian prisons at the beginning of the uprising were Islamists connected to the Brotherhood. For example, the 2010 State Department Human Rights Report noted, “The [Syrian] government arbitrarily arrested alleged Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood members, and civil society and human rights activists during the year. . . Local human rights observers estimated that 1,500 to 3,000 political prisoners, including accused Islamists, were in detention. The government frequently held political detainees for extended periods without trial and without information provided to their families. . . . The government forbids membership in Islamist parties, and authorities arrested, and in some cases prior to the reporting year, executed these members.”
Syria Revolution 2011 Facebook Page
When unrest emerged in Syria as part of the Arab Spring in early 2011, the Brotherhood, from its base in the UK, was well placed to organize a violent insurrection in Syria once again, with support from its close allies, the British, American, and Qatari governments. Syria expert and academic Joshua Landis notes that Brotherhood activists in Sweden established the “Syria Revolution 2011” Facebook page, which became an important mechanism through which protests were organized throughout the country and which “is the most important webpage of the Syria revolution. It has over 130,000 members. It is the major source of news and Youtube videos about the Syrian revolution.” The New York Times suggests that the Syria Revolution 2011 Facebook page, “administered from abroad, has become the pulpit for the revolt — its statements de facto policy of the uprising.”
As a result, anti-government chants during demonstrations included some explicitly pro-Brotherhood slogans such as “No Iran. No Hizbullah. We want a Muslim who fears God (referencing the view that Assad is not a true Muslim).”
Brotherhood-affiliated opposition activists on the ground in Syria were able to disseminate video and updates of demonstrations the Syria 2011 Facebook page and to YouTube, which the US State Department-funded Barada TV and Qatar-owned al-Jazeera satellite news channel, the BBC, CNN and others quickly broadcast.
Fidaaldin al-Sayed Issa, administrator of the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page, stated in an interview that “The Facebook page is run by around 10 members while about 350 people are working in the network, around 250 in Syria and 100 around the world. We have people down there filming, collecting information on deaths, etc. Our business is not just about organizing the protests, but also to act as an information platform – a source – where media, such as Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Al-Arabiya can retrieve information.
This activist network was able to upload footage of demonstrations thanks to satellite phones and modems supplied to activists from abroad. In April 2011, the New York Times reported that “For weeks now, the small number of activists, spanning the Middle East, Europe and the United States, have coordinated across almost every time zone and managed to smuggle hundreds of satellite and mobile phones, modems, laptops and cameras into Syria. There, compatriots elude surveillance with e-mailed software and upload videos on dial-up connections.” That this network received assistance from US intelligence seems implied by the fact that the NYT points out that one prominent activist responsible for disseminating this crucial equipment was “Ammar Abdulhamid, an activist in Maryland.”
The involvement of US intelligence during this early period should be expected given claims by Flynt Leverett, the former Middle East specialist for the State Department, CIA and National Security Council during the Bush Administration. Leverett described how, “The unrest in Syria started in March 2011. . . . and by April of 2011, just one month into this the Obama administration was backgrounding David Sanger from the New York Times and other sympathetic reporters that they were looking at the situation in Syria as a way of pushing back and undermining Iran. That if you could bring about regime change in [Syria] the argument was that this would really weaken Iran’s regional position and reignite the Green Movement and produce regime change in Iran. . . This has been very much the real strategic driver for American policy toward the situation.”
Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC)
In addition to controlling the main Facebook page for organizing demonstrations, Islamists also had strong influence in one of the biggest grassroots organizations on the ground in Syria, the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC). The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) described the SRGC as “the largest grassroots coalition” on the ground in Syria and which “represents roughly 70 percent of the revolutionary councils and the majority of the local coordinating committees [LCCs], with fifty-six different organizations officially recognized in its charter.” ISW also noted the connection between the Brotherhood-controlled Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page and the SRGC, explaining that the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page “is administered by an important group of grassroots activists closely aligned with the Syrian Revolution General Commission.”
That the SRGC was dominated by Islamists is also evident when reviewing the background of the SRGC leadership. The Carnegie Middle East Center noted in December 2012 that the “major figures” in the SRGC include Mohammad Alloush, Saleh al-Hamwi, Nidal Darwish, Rania Kisar. Of these four, two are Islamist rebel commanders, while one has expressed sympathy for al-Qaeda.
Mohammad Alloush helped found the SRGC, and was the leader of one of the most powerful Islamist rebel groups in Syria, Jaish al-Islam. Alloush was appointed as the lead negotiator for the Syrian opposition at the Geneva peace negotiations in January 2016.
Of Alloush, the pro-opposition news site The New Arab wrote: “To everyone’s surprise, Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) leader Mohammad Alloush was chosen as the chief negotiator for the opposition delegation. Mohammad is the cousin of Zahran Alloush, the former leader of the Islamist rebel faction killed in a Russian airstrike last month. Alloush was born in 1970 in Douma, the largest city in the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus. He studied Sharia at Damascus University before continuing his studies in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Alloush was among the earliest to join the rebellion, setting up several revolutionary institutions and organisations. He co-founded Jaysh al-Islam and headed its political bureau afterwards, representing it in political conferences including the Riyadh conference most recently.”
It is odd that the Syrian opposition chose the cousin and successor of Salafist rebel leader Zahran Alloush to be its lead negotiator, the very Zahran Alloush whom the opposition suggested Assad had released as part of a plot to militarize and radicalize the allegedly secular and peaceful opposition. Mohammad Alloush’s nomination as chief negotiator, and the acknowledgment in pro-opposition sources that he “was among the earliest to join the rebellion, setting up several revolutionary institutions and organisations,” namely the SRGC, is another indicator that the opposition was largely Islamist dominated from the beginning of the uprising.
Saleh al-Hamwi, one of the founders of the SRGC, holds Islamist views as well. Like Alloush, al-Hamwi participated in armed activities against the Syrian state, though according to the pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl, he primarily worked as a field medic assisting injured protesters and delivering humanitarian aid (and should not be confused with Saleh al-Hama, a commander for the Nusra Front). The Washington Post noted in February 2013 that al-Hamwi “coordinates the activities of rebel units in the province of Hama with others around the country.” In an interview with al-Jazeera, al-Hamwi claimed that any future Syrian state should be Islamic in nature, consistent with the Muslim Brotherhood view. Al-Jazeera reported that “With respect to the form of the Syrian state in the future, Saleh [al-Hamwi] confirmed the state should have an Islamic origin [marji’iya islamiya], but acknowledged that the last word will be resorting to the ballot boxes and therefore the decision of the majority will rule.”
Al-Hamwi’s confidence in voting and majority rule reflects the common rebel argument that because some 70% of Syrians are Sunni, the majority of Syrians must want an Islamic state, based on either a Salafi or Brotherhood interpretation of Islamic law. This is doubtful however. It is clear the Syrian rebels as a whole are fighting for an Islamic state, as the most powerful rebel factions are all Islamist/Jihadist in orientation (Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al Sham, Nusra Front) and yet many Syrian Sunnis continue to fight for the Syrian army, and are themselves often victims of the rebels. Also indicative of this is that support for the Syrian uprising in Aleppo (a majority Sunni city) was always low. As one rebel commander in Aleppo admitted, “Yes, it’s true. . . Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them.” This suggests many (and possibly most) Syrian Sunnis believe in a mainstream version of Islam that does not reject a secular state and that is respectful of minority groups.
Rania Kisar is a Syrian-American who quit her job as an admissions officer at a Dallas university in April 2012. She first relocated to Turkey, near the Syrian border to engage in humanitarian relief efforts. Kisar travels frequently to Syria, and established a school in Idlib province, which is under al-Qaeda rule. Kisar’s ideological views are unclear. However, she has expressed some sympathy for al-Qaeda (Nusra Front) militants in the press, suggesting al-Qaeda militants play an important role in the Syrian revolution and are needed by the opposition. While complaining about al-Qaeda militants intervening in her efforts to educate the children at her school, Kisar nonetheless told the Independent in July 2017 that in her view, the “international community’s fear of radical Islamists taking over Syria is exaggerated and reflects a lack of understanding of the Syrian opposition” and that “the militants are needed, they provide services and infrastructure as well as skilled fighters for now, but will not have support later.”
That the SRGC and Syria 2011 Facebook page were dominated by Islamists does not mean those protesting on the ground all had Islamist goals. But they were attending demonstrations organized largely from abroad, by people they did not know. When ISW inquired of one opposition activist what he thought of the SRGC, “he shrugged his shoulders and resignedly asked, ‘Who’s that?’ After a large sigh, he continued, ‘I don’t even know, who is the SRGC? Who is its leader? Who are its members? I know nothing about this group except that they claim to ‘represent the people’— but everyone claims to ‘represent the people.’”
Syrian National Council is Muslim Brotherhood Dominated
The largest Syrian opposition group outside the country, the Syrian National Council (SNC) was also largely Islamist dominated. The SNC held its first meeting in Istanbul on April 26, 2011. Al-Jazeera reports this was the first public meeting of members of the Syrian opposition and was held at “the invitation of Turkish NGOs and was led by the British-based Movement for Justice and Development. The MJD was formed by several former members of the Muslim Brotherhood and is a signatory to the Damascus Declaration.”
SNC members elected Barhan Ghalioun, a secular Sunni and professor of Political Sociology at the Sorbonne in Paris, as its president in October 2011. ISW reports that Ghalioun has “been accused of being a puppet for the Muslim Brotherhood” and that former Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadr al-Din Bayanouni has admitted that the Brotherhood nominated Ghalioun as council leader merely as a “front.” ISW notes that in a YouTube video, “Bayanouni explained that Ghalioun’s nomination was a move to gain wider international appeal and to prevent the Syrian regime from directing Islamist accusations at the council. ‘We did not want the Syrian regime to take advantage of the fact that Islamists are leading the SNC,’ he said in the video.”
In February 2012, the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor observed that “Brand new opposition groups are also forming, including the National Change Movement, which claims to be a non-Islamist alternative to the SNC, reflecting the view of some that Islamists control the SNC.”
ISW cites the New York Times as reporting in March 2012 that Kamal al-Labwani, “a respected dissident released from Syrian prison last year halfway through a 12-year sentence” resigned from the SNC, and “accused Muslim Brotherhood members within the exile opposition of ‘monopolizing funding and military support.’” The Times of Israel notes that Labwani was appointed to the SNC without his knowledge while still in prison, and that he claimed that the SNC “utilized my name to claim they have support on the inside, that they have objectors on their side” and that “More than once I’ve heard Americans say that ‘the Brotherhood must lead this stage.’ We told them: ‘The Brotherhood are extremists, not moderates. This is not Islam which is appropriate for civilization.’” The NYT reported that another SNC member, Walid al-Bunni, resigned from the SNC as well, complaining that “The Brotherhood took the whole council. We became like extras.”
Having a member of the Muslim Brotherhood as the leader of the SNC would have made it much easier for the Syrian government to (correctly) point out that the uprising was not led by Marxists, liberal democrats, and human rights campaigners, as typically assumed by Western observers, but rather by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, as mentioned above, had previously led a violent insurrection against the Syrian state, and which has been committed to toppling the Syrian government, through armed struggle if necessary, and replacing it with an Islamic state, since that time. To obscure this, the Brotherhood promoted the secular Ghalioun as the SNC head.
The Muslim Brotherhood was able to dominate the SNC because it had significant funding from state backers, in particular Qatar. According to ISW, the Brotherhood has considerable influence within the SNC as it “has access to funds through high level connections in the region built during years in exile and a powerful network of supporters in oil-rich Gulf countries. Much of the SNC’s funding comes from these connections, resulting in the Brotherhood’s monopolization of council finances and resources.”
In short, what Western observers assumed was an entirely secular uprising, demanding freedom and human rights in the Western sense, in fact had a very strong Islamist component, was managed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and had strong financial support from the Gulf countries that themselves enforced fringe, extremist versions of Sunni Islam on their own populations and wished to export the same in Syria. The use of phrases such as “councils” and “committees” and “revolutionary” coupled with video footage of protests and demonstrations using English slogans about freedom helped to obscure the largely Islamist nature of the uprising.
Given that the Syrian opposition was largely Islamist-controlled, that many political prisoners were Islamists, and that the opposition was demanding that the Syrian government release political prisoners, we would expect the Syrian government to release Islamist prisoners as part of any announced general amnesty, and to do so openly.
In fact, this is exactly what occurred. As mentioned above, the Australian reported on March 26, 2011, just 11 days after protests erupted in Daraa, that “Syrian authorities released more than 200 prisoners from Saydnaya, mainly Islamists, after the prisoners had submitted signed requests for their release” and that “The government of President Bashar al-Assad announced a string of reforms on Thursday, including the release of all activists detained this month and the possibility of ending emergency rule, in place since 1963. It comes as protestors in Syria vowed to hit the streets, despite a rising death toll in demonstrations that have put Bashar al-Assad under unprecedented domestic pressure. A Facebook group [the Brotherhood-controlled Syria Revolution 2011] that has emerged as the motor behind a string of demonstrations that have surfaced in Syria this month drummed up support for more rallies today, the morning after more than a dozen died in protests across the country.”
When an additional amnesty was announced at the end of May, the Syrian government explicitly announced that members of the Brotherhood would be among those released. The Christian Science Monitor reported how “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a clear conciliatory gesture to anti-regime protesters following weeks of brutal suppression by his security forces, announced Tuesday a general amnesty for all ‘crimes’ committed before May 31. According to Syrian TV, the amnesty will apply to all political prisoners as well as to the banned Muslim Brotherhood [emphasis mine].”
It is unlikely the Syrian government would have announced this if it had a secret plan to release Islamists in order to militarize the supposedly peaceful opposition. The Syrian government knew from the beginning of the unrest that the Muslim Brotherhood, its long time enemy, was playing a crucial role in the protests. Any effort to placate the protesters, and alleviate the “unprecedented domestic pressure” it faced, inevitably meant placating the Brotherhood and releasing Islamist prisoners.
Crucially, both the Syrian opposition and Western leaders did not oppose the release of Islamist prisoners when the amnesties were announced. Instead, they criticized the release of such prisoners and other offers for reform as not going far enough to meet opposition demands. After Assad’s Damascus University speech, in June 2011, al-Jazeera reported that “Hundreds of detainees were released, according to rights groups. But the amnesty decrees are believed to be a part of the overtures by the Syrian government to its opposition, largely seen as symbolic. Rights groups have criticised the amnesty measures, calling them insufficient.” Malcom Smart of Amnesty International expressed the view that “The announced amnesty, even if it proves substantive, does not go far enough. If President al-Assad’s announcement is to have any credibility, all the prisoners of conscience who have languished in Syria’s jails for years must be released and he must take concrete steps to stop the security forces from committing gross human rights abuses.” The New York Times noted that the opposition abroad, including the Muslim Brotherhood, responded by demanding “that Mr. Assad step down immediately and called for free elections.” The Guardian quoted British foreign secretary, William Hague, who described the speech as “disappointing and unconvincing.” The Guardian also quoted an opposition activist as asserting “I would have accepted this speech last year, but we are now in a different era,” while also reporting that protesters at demonstrations following the speech recited the common slogan “the people want to overthrow the regime.” In short, for the opposition and its Western-backers, only regime change was sufficient.
Further evidence that Assad was under pressure from an Islamist-dominated opposition comes from the fact the Syrian government made additional concessions to conservative religious segments of Syrian society in addition to releasing Islamist prisoners. Reuters reported on April 6, 2011 (just three weeks after the start of the protests and unrest in Deraa) that “Syria lifted on Wednesday a ban on teachers wearing the full face veil and ordered the closure of a casino, moves aimed at placating conservative Muslims in the tightly-controlled country that has seen weeks of unrest. . . Wednesday’s decisions are aimed at assuaging religious conservatives in the majority Sunni Muslim country, where the ruling hierarchy is of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam.” Mention of the fact that Assad was of the minority Alawite sect was an additional allusion to the fact that Brotherhood supporters took a sectarian attitude toward Alawites, not considering them Muslims, and that therefore they could not accept that Assad, in their view a non-Muslim, could be allowed to rule the country.
Syrian Uprising was Becoming Militarized Before the Amnesty
Not only the Islamist, but also the violent nature of the much of the uprising, was skillfully obscured by Brotherhood activists as well. From the beginning of the uprising, Brotherhood supporters used a dual strategy, employing both demonstrations and armed attacks on Syrian security forces in concert. Anti-government demonstrations received considerable attention in the Western press early in the uprising, while attacks on Syrian security forces received very little. Significantly, the militarization of the Syrian uprising was underway before the Syrian government began releasing prisoners as part of the various announced amnesties.
Syria analyst Aron Lund writes that “Turkish-Qatari support [for the opposition] seems to have arrived early on and was channeled through Islamist networks that included Muslim Brotherhood figures moving guns from civil-war Libya. Saudi Arabia mobilized Islamist allies, too, but was wary of the insurgency’s spiraling radicalism and distrusted the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. For example, non-Islamist Lebanese politicians were enlisted to move guns across the Lebanese and Turkish borders already in late 2011.” Lund cites Syria scholar Bernard Rougier of the Sorbonne as noting that the operation was ‘beyond any doubt planned under the supervision of the Saudi secret services (See The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East: Northern Lebanon from al-Qaeda to ISIS, p. 178).”
Confirmation of this comes from former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, who oversaw Syria operations on behalf of Qatar until 2013. Al-Thani admitted to supporting armed rebel groups from early in the uprising, with the backing of Saudi Arabia and, crucially, the United States. Al-Thani explained that “When the events first started in Syria I went to Saudi Arabia and met with King Abdullah” who supported al-Thani’s efforts to send weapons to rebels in Syria, with help from Turkey and “in coordination with US forces.”
Consistent with al-Thani’s claims, a fighter from the Qatar-backed rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham told Time magazine that Ahrar began forming brigades in Syria “after the Egyptian revolution” and “well before March 15, 2011, when the Syrian revolution kicked off with protests in the southern agricultural city of Dara’a.” Writing in al-Monitor, Syrian journalist Abdullah Suleiman Ali also indicates that Ahrar al-Sham was active in the early months of the uprising. He reports that according to his source within Ahrar al-Sham, a number of foreign fighters, “including Saudis, were in Syria as the Ahrar al-Sham movement was emerging, i.e., since May 2011.”
It is therefore unsurprising that anti-government militants (often described as protesters in the press) began attacking Syrian police and security forces from the beginning of the uprising in Deraa. For example, Israel National News reported that on Friday, March 18, 2011 in Deraa, “police opened fire on armed protesters killing four” and that “seven police officers were killed, and the Baath Party Headquarters and courthouse were torched” on Sunday, March 20, 2011. Former Saudi major general Anwar Eshki noted that opposition militants had been stockpiling weapons at the al-Omari mosque in Deraa, against the wishes of the local imam. This created a curious mixture of non-violent protest and armed insurrection. That protesters were described as armed, and more police officers were killed than protesters, is significant.
Attacks on Syrian security forces continued in subsequent weeks and months. Journalist Robert Fisk of the Independent wrote in June 2011 that “For well over a month, I have been watching Syrian television’s nightly news and at least half the broadcasts have included funerals of dead soldiers.”
The violent aspects of the Syrian conflict were largely obscured for outside observers, however, due to the sleight of hand used by opposition activists when reporting events on the ground. These activists sought to obscure the role of armed rebels in the conflict, while highlighting or even fabricating Syrian government violence.
On April 3, 2011 Newsweek reported that “When demonstrations broke out in Daraa recently, phony activists on Twitter blasted out videos of massacres, which were duly picked up by dissidents including Aumran. The videos turned out to be fakes, discrediting the type of social-media elite who were crucial news sources in countries like Egypt and Tunisia,” referring to noted opposition activist Malath Aumran and others who unwittingly passed on this false information.
Clashes in which Syrian security forces killed armed rebels were often described as protests in which Syrian security forces killed unarmed protesters (though the killing of unarmed protesters occurred also). Opposition activists often reported the deaths of rebels instead as civilian deaths and these claims were repeated in the Western press. Journalist Nir Rosen, who spent considerable time in Syria early in the uprising, described how: “Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes. Of course, those deaths still happen regularly as well.”
National Public Radio (NPR) reported in early 2012 that one opposition media activist from Homs “admits that he and his colleagues tailored their information to show as much of the civilian misery, and as little rebel activity, as possible.”
When it became clear that Syrian soldiers were being killed by rebels, opposition activists simply alleged that the dead soldiers were defectors who had been killed by their own commanders, for refusing to shoot civilians. These implausible claims were rejected even by Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), who is a chief source of information about events in Syria for the Western press. In one famous case involving the killing of Syrian soldiers in Banyas, opposition claims of soldiers being killed by their own officers were clearly refuted by Syria scholar Joshua Landis.
All of this resulted in a distorted view of the conflict. The Syrian government used excessive violence against demonstrators at times and wrongly killed, detained and mistreated civilians suspected of involvement in both the protests and armed attacks (as most governments do); however, the other half of the story, that the government was also facing an armed insurrection, and rebels were killing Syrian security forces in significant numbers from the beginning, went largely unreported.
As the summer of 2011 wore on, the violent aspects of the Syrian uprising became more apparent, and opposition groups no longer denied that an armed rebellion was taking place. They now simply suggested that armed rebels were fighting the Syrian government to protect civilians and in response to government efforts to “crack down” on demonstrations. In July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was founded, led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, in an effort to better organize the rebel effort and provide a conduit through which the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey could funnel arms.
Additional evidence of Qatar’s efforts to militarize the Syrian uprising in its first year comes from Sami Khiyami, Syria’s ambassador to the UK and a secular Sunni who was himself sympathetic to the Syrian opposition. In late 2011, Khiyami privately asked American Syria scholar David Lesch to request that US officials “get the Qataris to stop causing so much trouble in Syria in a way that is leading toward militarization of the crisis.”
This means that when Assad released prisoners as part of the March, May and June amnesties, the Syrian opposition was already largely Islamist-dominated and was employing violence in addition to organizing peaceful protests. The Syrian opposition did not change considerably from the beginning of the uprising until the time it became widely acknowledged that an armed Islamist insurrection was underway in Syria. This was despite repeated claims in the Western press that the Syrian opposition somehow started as secular, peaceful, and democratic, but then implausibly underwent a rapid transformation to become Islamist, militarized and finally extremist, resulting in the rise of groups such as ISIS.
Aron Lund summarized the situation well. He writes, “’Some Western and Syrian critics of Assad have argued that the militarization and Islamization of the uprising was an inevitable reaction to brutal repression, and that democratic activists represented the ‘original revolution.’ But a vastly stronger Islamist movement begged to disagree, and as Syria continued its descent into sectarian civil war, such counterfactuals simply did not matter—the opposition was what it was, not what its backers would have liked it to be.”
Who Did Assad Fear Most?
Rather than recognizing the release of Islamist prisoners as a gesture of goodwill on the part of the Syrian government in response to opposition demands, the Western press later used these events to accuse Assad of deliberately trying to create an armed Islamist insurgency against his own government, in order supposedly prove to the West that he was fighting terrorism rather than peaceful protesters agitating for democracy.
Members of the Syrian opposition claimed Assad did this because the Syrian government supposedly feared non-violent, pro-democracy protesters more than it feared the armed Islamist insurgents which enjoyed considerable foreign backing from the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This claim also does not stand up to scrutiny, and is evident by the way the Syrian government dealt with the other main opposition faction, the National Coordination Committee (NCC), also known at times as the National Coordination Body.
The National Coordination Committee (NCC) was formed in Damascus, bringing together fifteen political parties and several independent figures. Foreign Policy describes the NCC as “an internal opposition bloc consisting of 13 left-leaning political parties and independent political activists including 3 Kurdish political parties and youth activists.” The NCC was committed to three important principles that distinguished it from the Brotherhood and Gulf-backed SNC. According to a paper published by the Carnegie Middle East Center, the NCC was committed to: “‘No’ to foreign military intervention, ‘No’ to religious and sectarian instigation, and ‘No’ to violence and the militarization of the revolution.”
The NCC’s reformist goals conflicted with the Brotherhood, Qatari, Saudi and Turkish insistence on regime change, however. Consequently, the Carnegie Center noted that for the NCC “Relations have been less than cordial with the Gulf Cooperation Council member states in general, and with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, given disagreement over whether to engage in dialogue with the Syrian regime and over arming the opposition. Ties with Turkey have been no better, given the country’s undisguised preference for the Syrian National Council [SNC].”
The Gulf and Turkey-backed SNC bitterly criticized the NCC for its willingness to engage in dialogue with the Syrian government to diffuse the crisis and win reforms. Stratfor reports that “Also unlike the SNC, the NCC has met with members of the al Assad regime. As a result, and because the group is based in Damascus, some Syrian protesters view the NCC as a puppet opposition movement controlled by the regime.”
In short, as a result of the NCC’s peaceful, reformist stance, the Syrian government was willing to engage in dialogue with this segment of the opposition. The Syrian government was also willing to make concessions to conservative religious segments of society from which even the Brotherhood enjoyed support in an effort to diffuse the crisis. However, the Brotherhood-dominated wing of the Syrian opposition, the SNC, which enjoyed support from the Gulf States and Turkey, dismissed any efforts by the Syrian government to make concessions and implement gradual reform, instead preferring militarization of the uprising and regime change.
Later, the Western press turned reality on its head by suggesting that it was in fact the Syrian government that preferred to face an Islamist insurrection and was supposedly determined to undermine the peaceful, secular opposition by releasing Islamist prisoners.
The US is Responsible for the Rise of Jihadist Groups in Syria
The idea that Assad deliberately militarized the Syrian revolution and sought to support extremist rebel groups overlooks the clear evidence that the United States and its regional partners, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have themselves sought to militarize the Syrian uprising, and to do so by supporting extremist rebel groups. They did this by “pumping in” a “huge amount of weapons” (in the words of former Secretary of State John Kerry, and US Special Envoy to Syria, Michael Ratner) to Syrian rebel groups, many of which advocate Salafi-Jihadism, the same ideology advocated by al-Qaeda.
As discussed above, the United States and its regional allies, in particular Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have been supplying Syrian rebels with weapons and money since early in the uprising. These weapons shipments became openly acknowledged by American officials from January 2012. The New York Times reported that American officials described how, “[f]rom offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive,” and that a “former American official said David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director until November, had been instrumental in helping to get this aviation network moving and had prodded various countries to work together on it,” noting also that the arms airlift to Syrian rebels that started in January 2012 “has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes.” The NYT cited a former American official who noted that, “People hear the amounts flowing in, and it is huge.” Another Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memo suggests that weapons were shipped to Syrian rebels from Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime there.
Zahran Alloush, Hassan Abboud, and Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh are all prominent examples of prisoners released by Assad in the 2011 amnesty, who later went on to found Syrian rebel groups that received significant support from the US and its regional partners, in particular Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. All three are mentioned by name in the National article cited above.
The Telegraph reported of Alloush and Abboud that, “Upon their release, they emerged as leaders of two groups of armed fighters that were to become the most powerful actors of all in the Syrian uprising. Hassan Abboud’s group Ahrar al-Sham won backing from Qatar. Zahran Alloush’s Jaish al-Islam is backed by Saudi Arabia, where Alloush’s father Abdullah is a practising cleric. Their Gulf backing made them a magnet for religiously inclined fighters from Syria’s Sunni countryside, which has always been far more conservative than the multi-sectarian, sometimes freewheeling big cities. As the more secular Free Syrian Army (originally staffed by defectors from the regime’s army) struggled to find money and weapons, Abboud and Alloush’s strength only grew.”
Alloush embraced Salafism, including the concept of takfir, leading him to pejoratively refer to Shiites as “rejectionists” (rafidha), and “Zoroastrians” (majus) and thus not Muslims, therefore justifying their killing. He stated that his goal was to “cleanse” Syria of all Shiites and Allawites, and to “destroy their skulls” and make them “taste the worst torture in life before God makes [them] taste the worst torture on judgment day.”
Alloush has also declared his hostility to democracy. The pro-Saudi Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar reports that Alloush is “responsible for the disappearance of Ruzan Zeituna,” who is a well-known human rights lawyer and Assad critic, and that Alloush is “famous for his attacks on advocates of democracy,” and that he “embraces Salafi-Jihadi ideology and calls for an Islamic State, and is opposed to the democratic and republican systems.”
In November 2013, Jaish al-Islam joined with other major Syrian Islamist factions to form the Islamic Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiya) and Alloush became its head military commander. In December 2013, the Washington Post quoted a US intelligence official as saying, “We don’t have a problem with the Islamic Front,” indicating US approval of Saudi financial and military support for the group.
Syria expert Joshua Landis noted in December 2013 that “Alloush has gone out of his way to keep good relations with Jabhat al-Nusra [al-Qaeda in Syria]” and that Alloush has said, “his relationship with Nusra is one of brotherhood with only superficial ideological differences that can be settled with shari’a and discussions,” leading Landis to argue that “the ideological differences between the Front and al-Qaida are not deep.”
When Alloush was killed in a Russian airstrike in December 2015, the pro-Saudi Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar, surmised that Russia intended to “direct a blow against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the assassination of one of its most prominent trusted persons in the Syrian opposition,” further making Saudi sponsorship for Alloush clear.
Upon Alloush’s death, al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front) issued a statement memorializing Alloush, declaring that “The Sheikh Mujahid Muhammad Zahran Alloush has become a martyr- we testify and God is his judge – after two years of sacrifice and redemption, he fought on the edge of Damascus and struggled against the Nusayris (Alawites) and the rejectionists (Shia) until he met his Lord.”
US and Gulf support for Hassan Aboud is also clear. After his release from prison, Abboud became a leader of Ahrar Al-Sham (Freemen of Syria), a Syrian rebel group that calls for Jihad against Shia Muslims and other minorities in Syria, and that has worked closely with al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front). Notably, Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda cooperated in a 2015 joint offensive that captured the provincial capital of Idlib in the north of Syria.
Ahrar Al-Sham’s founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, had long standing links to Al-Qaeda, before he was killed in February 2014, allegedly by ISIS. According to reporting from the Long War Journal, the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri, named al-Suri as his representative in Syria. Al-Suri attempted to mediate the dispute between the Nusra Front and ISIS at the time the two al-Qaeda groups split. Al-Suri was previously a courier for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and Spanish officials allege that he received surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center from the operative who made the videos and delivered them to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan.
In September 2014, Hassan Aboud and much of the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham were killed in a large explosion of mysterious origin. Al-Qaeda leader Sanafi al-Nasr memorialized the deaths of Aboud and others writing on Twitter: “May Allah have mercy on them and be pleased with them, and may He gather us with them in the highest of gardens [in paradise].”
As a result, Hashim al Sheikh (also known as Abu Jaber), was elected as the new leader of the group, which role he filled for one year before stepping down. According to the pro-opposition el-Dorar al-Shamia, Abu Jaber had previously helped foreign fighters travel from Syria to Iraq to fight between 2003 and 2005, and then was arrested by the Syrian government on charges of “Wahhabism” and given an 8 year sentence. The Syrian government reduced Abu Jaber’s sentence due to the 2011 amnesty and released him instead after 6 years, in September of 2011. Abu Jaber then joined Ahrar al-Sham and became the deputy to Abu Khalid Al-Suri (mentioned above) who was then Ahrar’s leader (emir) of the Aleppo area. Abu Jaber later became the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant), a rebel coalition largely dominated by al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front).
Ahrar al-Sham’s main backer is Qatar, apparently with US approval. Of Qatar’s role in supporting Syrian rebels, Foreign Policy reports that Qatar “sent planes to move an estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment in 2012 and 2013, reportedly with the CIA’s backing,” and that it is easy for US officials to work with Qatar, given that “‘Their interagency process has about three people in it,’ said one former U.S. official.”
Despite Ahrar Al-Sham’s ties to al-Qaeda, the group was allowed to publish an Op-ed in the Washington Post in July 2015, while a sympathetic article about the group was published in the New York Times one month later. These articles seemed to be part of a US campaign to paint the group as “moderate” despite its Salafi-Jihadi ideology, ties to Al-Qaeda, and praise of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The NYT tried to justify Ahrar Al-Sham’s praise of Mullah Omar, by citing a cleric close to the group who contends that it “contained only an extremist minority.” A senior figure from Ahrar Al-Sham and the author of the Washington Post op-ed, Labib Nahhas, was then quietly allowed to visit the United States in May 2016.
Ahrar al-Sham also belonged to the Islamic Front alongside Alloush’s Jaish al-Islam. The Islamic Front was endorsed by US officials, as noted above. Ahrar al-Sham joined with al-Qaeda in Syria (the Nusra Front) to form the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fatah) in March 2015.
Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh
Ahmed Issa al-Sheik was the leader of Suqour al-Sham, another Islamist rebel group that played a prominent role in the Syria conflict and which received significant US and Gulf support.
Journalist Tam Hussein writes that “Suqour al-Sham was formed in 2011 after peaceful demonstrations failed and became a fully-fledged armed rebellion. Its founder Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh or Abu Issa formed the battalion after the death of his two brothers by the regime. He belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood as were many opponents of the regime in the eighties, and had been imprisoned several times by the regime but not as is often assumed, in Seydnaya prison where Islamist prisoners were kept.”
In an interview with the pro-opposition website Zaman al-Wasl, Ahmed Issa himself rejected claims that he had met Zahran Alloush and Hassan Aboud in Sendnaya, thereby rejecting opposition claims that all three were released together as part of a conspiracy by the Assad government to militarize the uprising. Ahmed Issa stated that “I was not detained in Sednaya actually. Rather, I was detained in the Palestine branch for 11 months, and I did not meet Sheikh Zahran Alloush or Sheikh Hassan Aboud (the leader of Ahrar al-Sham), before the revolution at all. Sheikh Zahran and Sheik Aboud were detainees in Sednaya. I did not ever meet them there. The story of the “Companions of Sednaya” is a product of the internet and there is no truth in it.”
Suqour al-Sham originated in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib province, but eventually spread throughout the country. Suqour al-Sham was initially affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and received weapons and funding from the US-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC). The group eventually played a prominent role in several rebel umbrella groups, including the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), the Islamic Front (IF), and also cooperated with al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front) at times. Suqour al-Sham was severely weakened in early 2014 as a result of clashes with ISIS, after members of Suqour al-Sham became split on the question of whether to fight ISIS or not. The group’s top religious advisor, Abu Abderrahman al-Sarmini, defected from the group January 2014 after objecting to fighting ISIS. One month later, ISIS kidnapped, tortured and murdered Muhamad al-Dik, the military head of Suqour al-Sham. As fighting between the groups continued, one of the largest factions within Suqour al-Sham split from the group as they also did not wish to fight ISIS. In March 2015, Suqour al-Sham merged with Ahrar al-Sham, which promptly joined with al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front) to create the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fatah).
Given this context, we must ask what impact Assad’s release of prisoners would have had in terms of militarizing and facilitating the rise of Islamist rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, and Suqour al-Sham if not for the massive military and financial support these groups then received from the US and its allies. If Assad deserves blame for releasing Islamists intent on militarizing the uprising, would the US and its regional allies not also deserve to blame for arming and financing them? What could rebel leaders such as Alloush, Abboud and Ahmed Issa have accomplished without US and Gulf support?
Further, when the Western press accuses Assad of a plot to deliberately militarize the Syrian revolution and support extremists among the rebels, this implicitly assumes that the Western powers wanted the Syrian uprising to remain peaceful and retain the secular ideals of democracy and human rights as its objective. If this were the case, why would the US and its Gulf partners support Alloush, Abboud and Ahmed Issa and the armed Islamist groups they headed? Why would Assad have to undertake a sinister plot to empower Salafi-Jihadi elements among the Syrian rebel groups, when the US and its allies were intent on doing just that?
US and Gulf support for rebels in Syria provides insight as to why the Arab Spring uprising took a violent turn in Syria, but remained peaceful in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood participated in peaceful protests in Egypt, and proved stronger than anticipated by many, winning parliamentary and presidential elections there, to the surprise and bitter disappointment of the secular Egyptian opposition. Despite considerable violence directed at the Brotherhood by the Egyptian state, the Brotherhood remained committed to peaceful means to take power. In contrast, in Syria the Brotherhood sought to ignite a violent insurrection, as it had between 1976 and 1982.
In my view the difference in approaches by respective Brotherhood branches in Syria and Egypt can be attributed to the fact that while the Egyptian government under Mubarak was a close US ally, the Syrian government under Assad is a major US enemy. In Egypt, the Brotherhood had long since renounced violence, and there was no reason for US intelligence to push for the militarization of the uprising against its own ally, Mubarak. In contrast in Syria, the Brotherhood still advocated armed struggle (perhaps at the insistence of their Western foreign backers) while US intelligence had a strong interest in militarizing the Syrian uprising (by way of its Saudi and Qatari partners), as US planners saw in the Syrian uprising an opportunity to weaken key enemies (not only Syria, but also Iran and Hezbollah).
The US Efforts to Overthrow Assad Are Helped by Rise of Jihadist Rebel Groups
If the Syrian government were to deliberately create an insurgency against itself, there would have been no reason for Assad to believe that this would change the stance of the Western countries toward Syria, and cause them to suddenly support him. The United States has been committed to the overthrow of the Syrian government for years, for specific geo-political reasons, primarily in order to weaken US adversaries, namely Iran and Hezbollah. If the Syrian uprising were to become militarized and led by extremist rebels, thereby threatening the Syrian government, this would in fact further US interests. Such a development, would be (and in fact was) welcomed by US planners.
The US desire to topple the Syrian government reaches back to at least 2001, when prominent neoconservatives in the US government threatened to invade not only Iraq, but also Syria and Iran. Former US General Wesley Clark discusses a conversation he had with a “senior general” a few weeks after 9/11 at the Pentagon, in which the general purportedly showed Clark a memo from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office which advocated a strategy to “take out seven countries in five years,” which would start with Iraq and Syria and end with Iran. That Syria and Iran were at that time potential US targets for regime-change was later confirmed by then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.
US planners were looking for concrete opportunities to destabilize the Syrian government as early as 2005, when the Bush Administration began to markedly increase funding for Syrian opposition groups, including some within Syria, leading to “persistent fears among U.S. diplomats that Syrian state security agents had uncovered the money trail from Washington,” according to the Washington Post.
Further, by 2006, US planners were seeking to exploit the fact that many Jihadists were traveling through Syria to join the fight against US forces in Iraq, and to turn these fighters against the Syrian government. A classified December 2006 cable written by William Roebuck, Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, highlights such opportunities. The memo notes that “We believe Bashar’s [Bashar-al-Assad, Syrian President] weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such as . . . . the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our assessment of these vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and the signals that the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising [Emphasis mine].”
Similarly, in March 2007, Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker that US planners had adopted a new “strategic direction” in an effort to use Sunni militant groups to weaken Iran, as a result of fears that the US invasion of Iraq had strengthened Iran (as pro-Iranian Iraqi politicians had come to dominate the new US-backed Iraqi government). Hersh quoted a Pentagon consultant who described how “the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria.” The plan involved using former Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan to provide funds to Islamic “religious fundamentalists” to do the dirty work of US foreign policy that the US could not do directly.
According to Hersh, the Pentagon consultant indicated that Bandar and other Saudis assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis [Jihadists] to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”
Hersh reported as well that influential Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt met with then Vice President Dick Cheney in late 2006 to discuss the “possibility of undermining Assad,” and that Jumblatt advised Cheney that the Muslim Brotherhood would be the “ones to talk to” if the United States did try to move against Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood would later play a key role in the Syrian opposition during the conflict starting in 2011, as detailed above.
Consequently, if an armed insurgency led by religious extremists were to threaten the Syrian government, this would in fact advance US interests. Such a view was articulated in a memo from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2012, which acknowledged that the creation of a “Salafist principality in Eastern Syria” would be “exactly what the supporting powers to the [Syrian] opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”
That the US welcomed the rise of Salafi-Jihadist groups in order to put pressure on the Syrian government is evidenced not only by US support for Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam as noted above, but also by US policy toward ISIS. Despite bombing ISIS in many instances, the US found the rise of ISIS useful in some contexts, namely when ISIS was advancing on Damascus in 2015. This was confirmed by then Secretary of State John Kerry. In a meeting with members of the Syrian opposition in September 2016, Kerry explained, that “the reason Russia came in is because ISIL [ISIS] was getting stronger. Daesh [ISIS] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus. And that is why Russia came in. They didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength. And we thought Assad was threatened. We thought we could manage that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him. . . . but for us politically, we have a congress that will not authorize our use of force. Congress will not pass that. And so we’re trying to help the best way we can [emphasis added].”
It appears the US wanted Russia to choose between continuing to support Assad, and thereby take the risk that ISIS would take Damascus, on the one hand, and abandoning Assad and allowing pro-Western moderate rebels supported by the US to take power through negotiations, on the other. Russia opted for a third choice, however, namely direct military intervention to turn the tide against ISIS and other US and Gulf supported rebel groups. The possibility of direct Russian military intervention in Syria is something US planners apparently did not anticipate.
Assad Accuses the West of Supporting Terrorism
Though it is true that Assad regularly claims that he is fighting terrorists, he does not do so to appeal to the West; rather he does so in the context of complaining that the Western powers and their Gulf allies are sponsoring the very terrorists he is fighting. In July 2014, Assad stated in a speech at the presidential palace that “Soon we will see that the Arab, regional and Western states that supported terrorism will pay a high price.” This is a common complaint of other Syrian government officials, as well as of Syrian civilians when speaking with Western journalists. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad asked Patrick Cockburn why the “US and Britain are against terrorists in one country, but favour them in another. . . They should tell their friends to refrain from supporting terrorism in Syria (See Syria, Descent into the Abyss: An Unforgettable Anthology of Contemporary Reportage, by Kim Sengupta, Patrick Cockburn, and Robert Fisk, pg. 319)” A Syrian colonel explained to Robert Fisk that “This is a conspiracy and the West is helping the foreign terrorists who arrived in Syria, the same terrorists you are trying to kill in Mali (Syria, Descent into the Abyss, pg. 401).” Fisk also relates the comments of a Syrian friend who pointed out that “The Christians are protesting. The Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo has just made an appeal to the Western powers not to send weapons to the fundamentalists (Syria, Descent into the Abyss, pg. 219).” In short, Assad has not asked for help in fighting terrorism from the West, he has simply asked that the West stop supporting terrorism in Syria by supporting extremist rebel groups.
Assad Needs Support from Iran and Russia to Stay in Power, not from the Western Powers
Rather than seek to ingratiate himself with the US and other Western powers, which are already determined to overthrow his government, Assad has instead sought to ingratiate himself with Iran and Russia, two countries that actually have an interest in keeping in power. For Russia, these interests include maintaining access to one of its few warm water naval bases, in Tartous, which allows it to project military power in the Mediterranean, and preventing Qatar from building a pipeline through Syria that would allow it to supply natural gas to Europe, thus undermining the Russian monopoly there.
Russia also desires to prevent the growth of Salafi-Jihadi groups that could later carry out attacks in majority Muslim provinces within Russia. Given Moscow’s experience fighting Salafi-Jihadi rebels in Chechnya in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and the history of terror attacks carried out by Chechen Islamic militants in Moscow itself, it is important for Russia to ensure that Salafi-Jihadi rebels do not succeed in taking over the Syrian state nor in furthering their regional influence. Putin himself was deeply involved in prosecuting the war in Chechnya, and even expressed his desire to castrate Chechen jihadists fighting against Russia at the time. This is all the more important for Putin given that many Chechens have traveled to Syria to fight for Salafi-Jihadi groups.
Perhaps more important than these geo-political considerations, is the desire of Russia to re-emerge as an important player on the world scene, in particular in the Middle East, a region of obviously crucial importance. Countering US and Gulf efforts to eliminate its one close Middle East ally in the region is a way for Russia to re-assert itself, especially after Putin was duped by the West into allowing a UN Security Council resolution to be passed establishing a no fly zone in Libya in 2011, which the US then exploited to overthrow the Libyan government of Moammar Qaddafi, against Russian wishes.
Iran has an interest in keeping Assad in power to ensure its ability to supply weapons to Hezbollah, whose military capabilities deter future Israeli attacks targeting not only Lebanon, but also Iran itself. If Israel were to bomb Iran or Lebanon, the Iranians and Hezbollah could respond by having Hezbollah launch rockets at northern Israel. Allowing Sunni Jihadi-Salafist groups to grow in Syria also poses a threat to the pro-Iranian government in Iraq, as the ISIS occupation of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul has shown.
Assad then, is still in power not because he was able to bring the Western powers to his side, but because Russian and Iran want him in power, for their own geo-strategic reasons.
US Releases Jihadist Prisoners
Further, the Syrian government may not have known who many of these prisoners were, or the threat they might pose upon release. The first months after the start of anti-government protests were chaotic, and it is possible these prisoners were released with no coherent or clear strategy in mind. Syria analyst Aron Lund suggests that “They were high-profile people who were released. . . But at this stage also, the regime probably didn’t know what it was doing. Orders must have been flying in all directions.” The Telegraph, while promoting the theory that Assad deliberately released Islamists to militarize the uprising, nonetheless noted that “For two Islamists in particular, release from Sednaya provided an opportunity to become internationally recognised players on a previously unimagined stage. Neither Hassan Abboud nor Zahran Alloush were well-known before the uprising, and neither seems to have been incarcerated in Sednaya for violent activities. Both adhered to Salafism – the purist version of conservative Islam, which had gradually taken hold in parts of Syria over the previous decade.” That both were largely unknown and imprisoned for non-violent activities suggests that the Syrian government may not have viewed Alloush and Aboud as any more significant or likely to engage in violence than other Islamists it released. The Telegraph also notes that “Upon their release, they emerged as leaders of two groups of armed fighters that were to become the most powerful actors of all in the Syrian uprising. Hassan Abboud’s group Ahrar al-Sham won backing from Qatar. Zahran Alloush’s Jaish al-Islam is backed by Saudi Arabia, where Alloush’s father Abdullah is a practising cleric. Their Gulf backing made them a magnet for religiously inclined fighters from Syria’s Sunni countryside, which has always been far more conservative than the multi-sectarian, sometimes freewheeling big cities.” This acknowledges that it was not the personalities of Alloush and Aboud that proved crucial in allowing them to organize effective rebel groups, but rather the backing, financial and military, of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that really mattered. Without this backing, that the Syrian government released Alloush and Aboud would likely not be significant.
An analogous situation occurred during the course of the so-called War on Terror, in which the United States similarly released many prisoners who were later involved in terrorist activity (for example from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and from Bucca prison in Iraq). In many cases US officials did not have a good understanding of who these prisoners were. The most notorious example of a Jihadist released from a US prison is of course the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
William McCants of the Brookings Institution provides a sketch of Baghdadi’s life, including his arrest and detention by US forces. In 2003, after the US invasion, Baghdadi helped found the insurgent group, Jaish Ahl al-Sunna w al-Jama’ah (Army of the People of the Sunna and Communal Solidarity) to fight US forces. In February 2004, Baghdadi was arrested in Fallujah while visiting a friend who was on the American wanted list and transferred to a detention facility at Camp Bucca. Baghdadi’s prison file classified him as a “civilian detainee,” suggesting US intelligence was unaware of his activities as an insurgent. Baghdadi quickly gained prominence among his fellow Sunni detainees, and also ingratiated himself with prison officials, who found him helpful in mediating disputes among prisoners. Baghdadi used the time to organize and recruit fellow prisoners. McCants writes that “By the time Baghdadi was released on December 8, 2004, he had a virtual Rolodex for reconnecting with his co-conspirators and protégés: they had written one another’s phone numbers in the elastic of their underwear.” Baghdadi contacted a relative in al-Qaeda upon his release, and quickly rose through the ranks of the organization. McCants notes as well that “Many of the ex-Baathists at Bucca, some of whom Baghdadi befriended, would later rise with him through the ranks of the Islamic State.” One fellow prisoner told the Guardian that “If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no [Islamic State] now. Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology.”
Further, the founder of the al-Qaeda in Syria (Nusra Front), Abu Muhammad al-Jolani was detained at Bucca by US forces as well. Despite this, articles claiming that Assad deliberately released Islamist prisoners to militarize and radicalize the Syrian uprising consistently mention the “rumor” that Jolani, was imprisoned at Sednaya by the Syrian government. The National article discussed above, which first made these claims about Assad in January 2014, mentions that “Abu Mohammad Al Jolani is also rumoured to have been among those set free, although little is known about his true identity.” Newsweek repeated this claim several months later, in June 2014, citing Syrian dissident Tarek al-Ghorani, who was imprisoned in 2006 by Syrian authorities for his blog. Al-Ghorani was held in Sednaya prison and then released as part of the 2011 amnesty. Al-Ghorani claimed to Newsweek that “Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, (founder of the Jihadist group, Jabhat al-Jabhat al-Nusra) was rumored to be there. Mohammed Haydar Zammar, (one of the organisers of the 9/11 attacks) was there. This is where the Syrian part of ISIS was born.” Al-Ghorani states further that “From the first days of the revolution (in March 2011), Assad denounced the organisation as being the work of radical Salafists, so he released the Salafists he had created in his prisons to justify the claim … If you do not have an enemy, you create an enemy.”
The National and Newsweek published these unsubstantiated rumors even though the outlines of Jolani’s life had already been established through information from Iraqi and Jordanian intelligence and from a prominent Jordanian Salafi leader. The Times of Israel published a brief overview of Jolani’s life based on this information in November 2013, which made clear Jolani had never been imprisoned by the Syrian government. Rather, Jolani had been imprisoned, and then released, by US forces in Iraq, and did not return to Syria until after the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011.
According to the Times of Israel, Jolani traveled to Iraq in 2003 to fight US forces, and became a close associate of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After Zarqawi’s assassination by US forces in 2006, Jolani traveled to Lebanon to train members of the jihadist group Jund al-Sham. Shortly thereafter, Jolani returned to Iraq and was detained by US forces and imprisoned in Camp Bucca. Like Baghdadi, Jolani was released by US officials. Jolani then became head of al-Qaeda operations in Mosul. Jolani only returned to Syria after the Syrian uprising began in 2011, in order to establish a branch of al-Qaeda in the country, on orders from Baghdadi.
These same details of Jolani’s life were confirmed by al-Jazeera in July 2015. Al-Jazeera reported that Jolani only returned to Syria in August 2011, long after the April, May and June prisoner amnesties announced by Assad. Al-Jazeera is in a good position to know the outline of Jolani’s past, given that Jolani granted two major interviews to the network, one in December 2013 (Jolani’s first), and the other in 2015.
Further, there was no way for al-Ghorani, or any other prisoner at Sednaya, to know if Jolani was a prisoner there, as Jolani’s identity was not known publicly at that time. Neither his real name (Jolani was simply his nom de guerre, indicating he was from the Golan area of Syria), nor face were known. During the 2013 and 2015 interviews with al-Jazeera he kept his face hidden, and no known pictures had existed of him. It would therefore not be possible by January 2014, when the National article was published, or in June 2014 when the Newsweek article was published to identify that Jolani had been in Sednaya. This means anyone claiming to know that Jolani had been held by Syrian authorities was passing on what amounted to gossip or even fabricating the claim.
Additional evidence that Jolani was never detained in Sednaya comes from a description of the origins of the Nusra Front made by Nusra member Abu Abdullah al-Shami, and highlighted by Syria analyst al-Tamimi. Al-Shami makes no mention of the idea that Jolani was detained in Sednaya, noting that Jolani was sent to Iraq by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with some cash and a handful of men in order to establish a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria.
Also interesting is that the Syrian dissident al-Ghorani claims Assad released Mohammed Haydar Zammar, an organizer of the 9/11 attacks, from Sednaya in order to help create ISIS.
Zammar is well known because he allegedly acted as the “travel agent” for al-Qaeda militants from the Hamburg cell that carried out the 9/11 attacks. In December 2001, he was abducted by US intelligence in Morocco and rendered to Syria, where he was allegedly tortured and interrogated by Syrian intelligence, in the presence of foreign (presumably Western) intelligence agents as well. In 2006, after four years in secret detention, he was sentenced to death by a Syrian court for supposed membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, though the death sentence was immediately commuted, and reduced to 12 years imprisonment.
It is true that Zammar was held in Sednaya prison, and that he was released by the Syrian government. Zammar was not released as part of the 2011 amnesties; however. Rather, the Syrian government released him in late 2013 as part of a prisoner exchange with Ahrar al-Sham in which the Syrian government traded Islamist prisoners for captured Syrian army officers. This was over two years after Assad supposedly released prisoners to militarize the uprising, and long after jihadists had already come to dominate the Syrian rebel scene.
This raises the question of why a militant group backed directly by Qatar (and implicitly by the United States, as discussed above), would demand the release of Zammar, a participant in planning the 9/11 attacks. The reader can draw his/her own conclusions about the reason for this. What is clear however is that Zammar’s case provides a window into the type of prisoners the Syrian opposition was demanding the Syrian government release at various times throughout the conflict. The Syrian opposition was successful in winning the release of Islamist prisoners in various instances, but only when it had sufficient leverage against the Syrian government to do so. This further suggests the Syrian government was not releasing Islamist prisoners as a result of plot to create ISIS or deliberately militarize the opposition, but due to other considerations.
A further example of this comes from the case of a prison riot in Hama in 2016, when the Syrian government released at least 30 Islamist prisoners. After word circulated that several prisoners would be transferred to Sednaya, inmates affiliated with the Jihadist group, Jund al-Sham, orchestrated a prison riot, taking the warden and several guards captive. Syrian security forces initially responded by firing tear gas inside the prison. The revolt was finally diffused through negotiations after Syrian authorities agreed to release many of the prisoners.
Did Assad Collaborate With al-Qaeda During the Iraq War?
The US government has claimed that Assad helped foreign fighters, including from al-Qaeda, transit through Syria to fight US forces in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion. That many foreign fighters coming to Iraq traveled through Syria is known through the “Sinjar” documents. Sinjar is a small town in Western Iraq, near the Syrian border and home to many of Iraq’s minority Yazidi population. In 2006, US forces raided an al-Qaeda cell there, and captured documents showing that Sinjar was a major way station for foreign fighters coming through Syria to fight in Iraq.
Critics of the Syrian government cite this as proof that Assad released Islamist prisoners to militarize and radicalize the Syrian uprising. If Assad collaborated (whether passively or actively) with al-Qaeda in 2003, he must have collaborated with al-Qaeda again in 2011 and after, these critics suggest.
In my view it is plausible that the Syrian government at least tolerated these foreign fighters passing through its territory on their way to Iraq. This is because Assad would have had a concrete interest in doing so, given that Syria was the Bush Administration’s next target.
As discussed above, US General Wesley Clark discussed a conversation he had with a “senior general” a few weeks after 9/11 at the Pentagon, in which the general purportedly showed Clark a memo from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office which advocated a strategy to “take out seven countries in five years,” which would start with Iraq and Syria and end with Iran.
If Assad could contribute to defeating US forces in Iraq, this might prevent a later assault on Syria. If this was Assad’s strategy, it was, in a limited sense, successful as the Iraqi insurgency caused the US to pay such a high price in blood (of its soldiers) and treasure that the US was eventually forced to withdraw from Iraq in 2011. The Iraq failure limited the appetite of the US public for additional wars of aggression in the Middle East. What US planners perceived as Assad’s efforts to thwart US plans in Iraq are one reason why they continued to try to topple his government throughout the mid to late 2000’s, albeit by less direct means.
In 2005, Flynt Leverett, former senior Middle East analyst at the CIA and senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council during the first Bush Administration, cited the allegation that “As the Bush administration launched its military campaign against Saddam’s regime in 2003, Bashar [al-Assad] not only opposed the war but authorized actions that worked against the US pursuit of its objectives in Iraq (Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire by Flynt Leverett, page 10)” as a reason to either “ratchet up economic, political, rhetorical pressure on Damascus,” on the one hand, or effect “coercive regime change” on the other (pages 17-18). These efforts had to take the form of covert support for the Syrian opposition and economic sanctions however, as direct military invasion by the US army was by then off the table.
It would also make sense for Assad to at least tolerate al-Qaeda linked fighters passing through Syria to fight in Iraq, given that from 2004 until 2008, the Syrian government was attempting to defeat al-Qaeda linked armed groups engaged in a bombing and assassination campaign within Syria itself. Better these militants go to Iraq to fight the American occupiers than remain in Syria and carry out terror attacks against the Syrian government.
The fact that al-Qaeda linked groups within Syria were carrying out terror attacks against Syrian state targets during this period is not widely known or acknowledged. However, terrorism expert Peter Neumann notes that “leaked State Department cables mention bombings and numerous shoot-outs in the years 2004 and 2005; a suicide bombing and several armed clashes and attempted bombings in 2006; more gun battles, several attempted car bombings in Damascus and the seizure of ‘suicide belts, vehicles and 1200 kg of explosives’ in 2008; as well as the bombing of a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims in March 2009. The first wave of these attacks, from 2004 to 2006, was claimed by Jund al-Sham, an obscure group which experts believe had been started by [al-Qaeda in Iraq leader] Zarqawi, while the second, from 2008 to 2009, was the work of ‘rogue members’ of Fatah al-Islam.”
Neumann further notes that what he views as Assad’s efforts to re-direct al-Qaeda militants toward Iraq back fired, when many later returned to Syria. Neumann continues, “Whatever the label, the people responsible [for attacks within Syria] were, without exception, former foreign fighters who had been part of the Iraqi insurgency and fetched up in Syria, where they used their fighting experience and combat skills to attack the government and, increasingly, the Shiite population. One of the most dramatic illustrations of the way in which Assad’s policy backfired were the Sednaya prison riots. After the Iraq invasion, Syrian intelligence officials offered Islamist inmates at this notorious facility just outside Damascus the chance to receive military training and fight against Coalition forces in Iraq. According to a leaked State Department cable, of those who accepted the offer and subsequently managed to return to Syria, ‘some remained at large … others were sent to Lebanon, and a third group were re-arrested and remanded to Sednaya.’ The ones who went back to prison felt ‘cheated’: they ‘had expected better treatment, perhaps even freedom, and were upset over prison conditions’. In July 2008 they rioted, taking a number of prison staff and military cadets hostage. Despite the deployment of special forces, the prisoners maintained control over part of the prison for several months. In January 2009 the long stand-off was resolved in a ferocious battle, which cost the lives of a hundred prisoners and dozens of soldiers. For the military, the episode was a ‘black mark’. The Syrian media never mentioned it.”
Neumann further mentions Syrian government efforts to send some of these militants to Lebanon. However, “A good many jihadist returnees decided to stay in Syria, where they embarked on a terrorist campaign. This included high-profile attacks against government buildings, state television, the US Embassy and a Shiite shrine, all reported by the international press. But there were hundreds of smaller incidents and failed attacks which the government kept secret, and outsiders had little way of knowing about. Representatives of European intelligence services stationed in Syria at the time say that they received reports about terrorist incidents ‘on a monthly basis.’”
That the Syrian government was struggling to deal with a protracted terror campaign at home may explain why the Syrian government eventually assisted US forces in assassinating Abu Ghadiya, al-Qaeda in Iraq’s main facilitator for transiting foreign fighters, in October 2008. US forces crossed into Syria to conduct the attack. Journalist Sean Naylor of Foreign Policy reports that, “It turned out that Syrian intelligence (the Mukhabarat) was already keeping tabs on Ghadiya. With the US lobbying various Arab governments to put pressure on Syria over the foreign-fighter issue, Assad eventually signaled that he would not protest if Ghadiya were taken out, essentially acquiescing to the terrorist’s liquidation. A Task Force Orange member then made a number of trips to Ghadiya’s compound, acting as a singleton, to place devices that would allow the NSA to vector in on their target’s cellular phone. Once the NSA had a lock on Ghadiya’s phone, JSOC waited for confirmation from a HUMINT source — Assad’s intelligence asset recruited from within Ghadiya’s network. The cross-border operation was launched on October 26, 2008. MH-60 helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation flew Delta Force operators into Syria where they secured the objective, killing a handful of terrorists in the process. Ghadiya himself was KIA on the objective.”
If US claims are true that Assad deliberately facilitated the passage of al-Qaeda militants into Iraq to fight US forces, this would not provide evidence that Assad created ISIS in Syria or released Islamist prisoners to deliberately militarize and radicalize the Syrian uprising in 2011, however. In fact, it provides evidence of the opposite. If Assad successfully executed such a strategy against US forces in Iraq, with all the carnage unleashed by al-Qaeda that resulted, it would be extremely bizarre for him to execute the same strategy against his own government and security forces, on purpose. Such a strategy would make sense to employ against one’s enemies, but not against oneself. This is especially the case given the Syrian government’s long history of fighting against militant Islamists, which unbeknownst to most outside observers, continued throughout at least 2009.
The US and Gulf-backed jihadist insurgency in Syria has killed or injured some 100,000 Syrian soldiers and pro-government militia members, assassinated top government officials, including Assad’s brother-in-law, conquered large segments of the country, and took control of most of Syria’s oil producing infrastructure for a lengthy period. To claim that Assad would deliberately militarize the Syrian opposition if there was even a small risk of any of these easily predictable outcomes materializing is bizarre.
Did Assad Murder His Own Brother-in-Law?
Journalist Roy Gutman of the Daily Beast has promoted even more bizarre claims, suggesting that Assad killed many of his own top security officials, including the defense minister and his own brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, in a false flag terrorist bombing at the National Security building in Damascus on July 18, 2012.
Of the bombing, Reuters reports that “Assad’s most trusted lieutenants, led by his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, were holding a crisis meeting inside a security headquarters when a bomb blast tore through the room. Shawkat was killed, as was the defense minister and another top general. The intelligence chief would die of wounds two days later, and the interior minister was also hurt.”
Gutman relies on speculation from Mohamad Nour Khalouf, “who at the time was a major general in the Syrian army serving in the Defense Ministry” and who later defected to the rebel side, and from Bassam Barabandi, “a former Syrian diplomat close to the opposition who now lives in Washington and is seeking political asylum” to suggest that Iran was behind the bombing. Gutman reports for example that Khalouf was “convinced” that “Iranian advisers had urged Assad to remove several of his top aides” who “were plotting a coup against him. . . After the explosion, there was no one [for Assad] to trust except Iran.’”
These claims are not credible for several reasons. First, both Khalouf and Barabandi are biased sources, as both were active members of the Syrian opposition at the time they made their claims.
Second, neither Khalouf nor Barabandi provide evidence for the claim that Iran was behind the bombing. They simply speculate this is the case.
Third, the bombing came in the context of a major rebel offensive to take Damascus. It makes much more sense that the bombing of the National Security building was carried out as part of this rebel offensive, than to believe that Assad chose exactly the time when his control of Damascus was perceived as weakest to kill his own advisors. Reuters notes that the bombing came on the fourth day of the offensive, dubbed by rebels as operation “Damascus Volcano and Syria Earthquake” and as “Battles flared in the morning within sight of Assad’s presidential palace.” According to Reuters, the operation apparently took government forces by surprise, and involved 2,500 rebel fighters, many of which were redeployed from other parts of the country, to focus efforts on taking the capital. The offensive began when rebels attacked Syrian security forces on Saturday July 14 in the Hajar al-Aswad district of southern Damascus. The fighting spread to three other districts the next day, including the Midan district in the heart of the city, while rebels bombed a bus full of Syrian soldiers, wounding many. Rebels used machine guns, improvised explosive devices and rocket propelled grenades to fight government forces in the narrow alleys of the city. The New York Times placed news of the bombing of the National Security building in the context of the rebel offensive as well, noting that “The attack on the leadership’s inner sanctum as fighting raged in sections of the city for the fourth day suggested that the uprising had reached a decisive moment in the overall struggle for Syria. The battle for the capital, the center of Assad family power, appears to have begun.”
Fourth, rebel groups themselves claimed responsibility for the bombing, and celebrated the deaths of the deceased security officials. Spokespersons for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jaish al-Islam both took credit for the bombing. FSA spokesman Qassim Saadedin claimed that the bombing was part of the overall rebel offensive on Damascus as well, noting that “This is the volcano we talked about, we have just started.” Reuters reported that “Jubilant, the rebels claimed responsibility, boasting that they had pulled off what they called ‘a turning point in Syria’s history’, hailing the attack as ‘the beginning of the end.’” The New York Times reported that “A video from Hama showed opposition members distributing candy to celebrate Mr. Shawkat’s death.”
Fifth, the security analysts quoted in the Western press at the time agreed that the bombing constituted a major blow to the Syrian government, and speculated that the weakness of the government illustrated by the bombing would potentially prompt defections of additional top security officials and lead to a government collapse. The New York Times observed that “With the opposition energized and the government demoralized, analysts wondered if other military units and trusted lieutenants would be more inclined to switch sides,” while quoting a retired Lebanese military officer as asking, “Who will replace these people? . . . They are irreplaceable at this stage; it’s hard to find loyal people now that doubt is sown everywhere. Whoever can get to Asef Shawkat can get to Assad.” The NYT also quoted Rami Abdul-Rahman of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) as claiming “The Syrian regime has started to collapse.”
Sixth, it should go without saying, but if these top security officials were planning a coup, Assad could simply have had them arrested and executed, or simply have dismissed them from their posts. Staging a bombing in the midst of a major rebel offensive just to kill them would make Assad appear weak and encourage defections, whereas publicly exposing the coup and executing the plotters would make Assad appear strong and send a message to other security officials about the grim consequences of disloyalty.
Gutman’s story in the Daily Beast was published years after the bombing, in 2016, suggesting that after opposition expectations about the collapse of the Syrian government failed to materialize, their story changed to suggest that Assad himself had carried out this and other bombings of Syrian state targets.
Sources of the Claim are of Dubious Reliability
Finally, the sources of the accusations that the Assad regime had a specific plan to militarize and radicalize the Syrian uprising all are of dubious reliability. All such sources are close to the Syrian opposition, which have an incentive to discredit the Syrian government for the sake of Western audiences, or come from anonymous sources, who are alleged to be former Syrian security officers. Further, the claims of these sources were published initially in media outlets from the Gulf, whose governments’ themselves wished to see Assad fall, and who were among the supporters of the jihadist rebels Assad supposedly sought to empower, thus further calling the credibility of their claims into question. For example, the National is the state-run newspaper of the United Arab Emirates which had a clear policy of regime change toward Syria. The International Affairs Review notes that “In the Emiratis’ view, the fall of the [Syrian] regime and the subsequent rise of a Sunni government would effectively end violent aggression against the Sunni population.”
The National simply quotes a “former regime security official” and a “former military intelligence officer,” as suggesting Assad released Islamist prisoners for nefarious reasons, both of whom remained anonymous. Of the second, who claimed to have heard orders to deliberately release Islamist prisoners in order to stoke violence, the National acknowledges that “His claims could not be independently verified and he did not have documents supporting them.”former military intelligence officer former regime security official former regime security official
Newsweek bases many of its claims on statements by Muhammad al-Saud, a member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a Syria opposition group dedicated to the overthrow of the Syrian government, and which was founded in Qatar (Qatar’s role in funding jihadist groups has been discussed above). Newsweek also relies on statements from Tarek al-Ghorani, a Syrian pro-opposition blogger who was imprisoned by the Syrian government for seven years, but who was released in the 2011 amnesty as well.
The argument that Assad deliberately released prisoners to create an armed insurgency of religious extremists against his own government is dubious. That such claims were uncritically recycled by the Western press suggests they are a product of a US/Gulf-initiated propaganda effort, and meant to obscure the fact that in reality it was the US and its regional allies, in particular Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have militarized and radicalized the Syrian uprising, in an effort to topple the Syrian government, and thereby weaken Iran and Hezbollah.