by Michael Rubin
2nd part of 2
Syrians in the Iraqi Insurgency
In September 2007, U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, twelve miles from the Syrian border, discovered computers and a cache of documents that included the records of more than 600 foreign fighters who had infiltrated into Iraq between spring 2006 and summer 2007. The documents show a pattern of Syrian behavior at odds with the regime's public statements and diplomatic posture. While the records listed Syrian as the nationality of only forty-four of the foreign fighters—behind Saudis (237) and Libyans (111)—Syrians coordinated the insertion into Iraq of almost all the fighters listed. The insertion of the Saudi terrorists is especially instructive as Saudi Arabia shares a lengthy and porous border with Iraq. The Saudi jihadists presumably choose to travel to Iraq through Syria because Asad tolerates what the Saudi leadership will not. It is also possible that the total Syrian numbers are underrepresented since Syrians formed a majority of the detainees held at Camp Bucca, the main U.S. detention camp in Iraq.
The Syrian jihadists themselves come from across Syria although most originate in the inland Dayr az-Zawr region, which abuts Iraq. Still others come from Latakia, the home province of the Asad family, and from Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. At just thirty-four individuals, the sample size of Syrians whose hometown is listed in the Sinjar records is too small to draw definitive conclusions about the roots of all Syrian jihadists, but it is clear that the radicals come from all across the country.
The Sinjar records also detail recruitment methods. Those recruiting most jihadists were "ikhwan (brothers)," not necessarily Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwan al-muslimun) members, but rather those whom the recruits considered devout or to be members of radical groups. Friends and relatives also recruited young Syrians for terrorist missions in Iraq. Most damning for Syrian government denial of culpability for facilitating terror was the Sinjar record's notation that recruiters reached several Syrians through the Internet. Given strict Syrian monitoring of electronic communication, Syrian statements that they did not know of such recruiting activities on their soil are not credible.
Underlining the extent and intensity of these recruitment efforts was the fact that almost
two-thirds of the Syrian nationals who volunteered for jihad in Iraq—and all those who reported initial recruitment by the Internet—became suicide bombers. The recruitment of suicide terrorists is complex. It requires psychological screening and indoctrination. If the Syrian government claims to be unaware of such activities in its own towns, cities, and mosques, then Syria's future stability cannot be assumed. It is far more likely that the Syrian regime chose to turn a blind eye to terrorist recruitment on its soil. Again, however, this Syrian blind eye should raise concerns about the country's future stability as it suggests a vulnerability to blowback should these same Islamist terrorists decide to return to Syria to take on the Asad regime.
The Syrian government's denials of facilitation for Islamist terror are less credible given the country's role as a transit point for radical fighters and arms. Almost all Saudis, Libyans, Egyptians, Algerians, Kuwaitis, Yemenis, and Moroccans transited Syria to reach Iraq. Syria is a police state. It is implausible that its government is unaware of the transit of large numbers of foreign nationals, some through Damascus International Airport, others across the border from Jordan and Turkey. Nor can the Syrian government simply blame spontaneous outrage at U.S. occupation of Iraq: Many of the foreign fighters who traversed Syria—and more than one-fifth of the Syrians represented in the Sinjar records—made cash contributions to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, often more than $1,000 and, in some cases, more than $10,000. For an outraged jihadist to take a weapon and try to cross the border is one thing; to acquire information necessary to donate to Al-Qaeda and actually transfer the money takes more direction.
The underground railroad through Syria is lucrative not only to Al-Qaeda but also to many Syrians. Trafficking people across Syria's border with Iraq is a complex and lucrative business. Smugglers will bribe border guards and, depending upon the size of the operation, officials in Damascus. Taking individuals across the border requires false papers, and acquiring these depends on corruption in Syrian government offices. In order to smuggle sensitive cargo through border checkpoints, smugglers often require intelligence about shifts and rotations of personnel at the border. This, in turn, suggests the complicity of higher levels within the Syrian regime. Indeed, many Syrian intelligence officials accept money to turn the other way. While the Syrian government sought credit for the prevention of terrorist infiltration following the U.S. siege of Fallujah in the summer of 2004, jihadists and fixers established an elaborate network of safe houses on the Syrian side of the border to enable the flow of fighters into Iraq to continue. After the capture of Fallujah, U.S. troops found photographs of the leader of the Jaysh Muhammad insurgent group meeting with a senior Syrian official. While officials refused to name the Syrian official, the Iraqi ambassador to Syria said that he had protested to the Syrian government.
The Sinjar documents describe a network of Syrian coordinators who facilitate travel through Syria, receiving between $19 and $34,584 for their services, the differential apparently dependent both upon the nationality of the jihadis as well as the demands of specific Syrian fixers. Saudis paid, on average, $2,500. However, the different pricing schemes offered by various fixers suggest the parallel operation of multiple networks rather than a single, coordinated system. While cross-border tribal links aided infiltration, so too apparently have security forces expelled from Lebanon. These latter augmented smuggling networks into Iraq in order to make up for income lost when Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon. Because the Syrian security forces are the domain of the 'Alawis, the involvement of the security forces in smuggling and in the "taxation" of smuggling suggests the direct complicity of the regime. Indeed on December 6, 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department designated seven individuals based in Syria as suppliers of financial support for the Iraqi insurgency. Six were members of the Syrian Baath Party.
Matthew Levitt, a former FBI terrorist analyst and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, highlighted the case of an individual known as Fawzi al-Rawi. "The extent of the Syrian role in al-Rawi's activities is noteworthy," Levitt explained. "Al-Rawi was appointed to his position in the Syrian Ba'ath Party by Syrian president Bashir al-Asad in 2003." Levitt also noted that the Treasury Department found that Rawi "is supported financially by the Syrian Government, and has close ties to Syrian intelligence."
Syrians in the International Jihad
The Asad regime's support for Al-Qaeda extends far beyond the Iraqi theater of operations. Ryan Mauro, assistant director of intelligence at The Counter Terrorism Electronic Warfare and Intelligence Centre, has observed: "Many international Al-Qaeda plots have Syrian links." He has also recounted Syrian links to Al-Qaeda attacks in Jordan and Morocco. For example, the cell of Abu Mus'ab az-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was based in Syria. Zarqawi's group was responsible for the October 28, 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan, as well as numerous killings of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
It has been reported that at least one alleged bomber from the Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain (a Moroccan Al-Qaeda affiliate that claimed responsibility for the May 2003 suicide attacks on restaurants, hotels, and the Belgian consulate in Casablanca) trained in Syria. In 2004, foreign students enrolled in Islamic schools in Syria participated in terrorist bombings in Israel and Turkey. Analysts might dismiss the attack on Israel as motivated by long-standing Syrian policies, but the attacks in Turkey occurred at a time when a sympathetic Turkish government was helping the regime in Damascus ease its international isolation. U.S. defense officials allege that Mustafa al-'Uzayti (Abu Faraj al-Libi), a senior Al-Qaeda official captured by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence on May 2, 2005, met several terrorists in Syria to plan attacks not only on the United States but also in Europe and Australia. Jordanian authorities narrowly averted a massive chemical terrorist attack in downtown Amman, which the Jordanian authorities estimate might have killed 80,000 people.
Following its 2005 expulsion from Lebanon, the Syrian regime used its connections to jihadists to attempt to destabilize the Lebanese government, sponsoring the Al-Qaeda affiliate Fatah al-Islam, which established itself in Nahr al-Barid, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. According to Lebanese government interrogation reports, captured jihadists reported links with Syrian intelligence. Jihadist cells in Iraq also spoke casually of Syrian veterans of the Jund ash-Sham (Soldiers of Syria) in Lebanon. Until an October 26, 2008 U.S. raid from Iraq killed him, Zarqawi's deputy, Sulayman Khaled Darwish (Abu 'l-Ghadiya), continued to receive safe haven in Syria. Following Darwish's death, Sa'd al-Shammari took over his foreign fighter facilitation network and continued to operate it from inside Syria. The list is long enough to suggest that a Syrian link to Al-Qaeda is more the rule than the exception. By providing a safe haven, the Syrian government is as complicit in assisting the terrorist group as was the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The Duplicity of the Regime
There is a growing discrepancy between the image the Syrian regime seeks to convey—that it cooperates in the war on terrorism by cracking down on radical Islamists—and the reality, which is that senior Syrian officials coddle and protect radical Islamists and Al-Qaeda operatives. Ironically, reports from international organizations such as Amnesty International have provided the Syrian regime with unwitting international legitimacy by endorsing its claim to intolerance for radical Islamists. Amnesty criticized the regime for the arrest of twelve and for the incommunicado detention of ten alleged Islamists in Dayr az-Zawr and also complained about the imprisonment of an Islamist returned to Syria in a "suspected unlawful rendition to Syria by the U.S. authorities." Such criticisms may be true, but without a proper context, they suggest that the regime exhibits complete hostility to Islamism.
In reality, Asad's position is more nuanced. The media plays its part in endorsing this carefully constructed image of the regime, which is accepted blindly by many journalists. The Economist, for example, cast doubt on the October 26, 2008 U.S. commando raid on a compound in Syria in which U.S. officials claim to have killed a senior Al-Qaeda figure. "What makes the raid odder still is that the Syrian authorities have themselves embarked on a nationwide confrontation with Al-Qaeda types in Syria," the magazine noted, apparently assuming the Syrian crackdown was more substance than show.
Lee Smith, a leading Syria analyst and scholar at the Hudson Institute, has speculated that any Syrian crackdown on foreign jihadists might be mere Machiavellian calculation. "Damascus has an important card to play against the Saudis, who fear that Syria is holding several hundred Saudi fighters in prison," he writes, adding, "Damascus could embarrass the Saudis by publicly announcing the existence of these extremists—or even worse, allow those jihadis to return home to fight the House of Saud."
Asad's motivation may be multifaceted. Abdel Halim Khaddam, vice president under both Hafiz and Bashir al-Asad and now a leading opposition figure in exile, speculated that Bashir gambled that the popularity of enabling resistance outweighed the dangers of antagonizing the United States. "Fighting the Americans in Iraq is very dangerous … But it also makes Bashir popular. Under the banner of resistance, anything is popular."
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran suggested that religious rule might be the wave of the future and not an ideal of the past. Three years later, Hafiz al-Asad's "Hama rules" (as columnist Thomas Friedman anointed the bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood) were a wakeup call for Islamists. The fall of secular, nationalist governments rose to the top of their agenda, but the task would neither be preordained nor easy.
After Hafiz al-Asad reasserted his authority, the Syrian government quietly began to use religion to co-opt those who might otherwise be attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood and its message. The Syrian regime financed mosques, subsidized clerics, and broadcast more religious programming on the tightly-controlled state television. Just as Saddam Hussein—once embraced in Western capitals for his staunch secularism and hostility to political Islam—found religion after his 1991 defeat in Operation Desert Storm, so, too, has the Asad regime cynically turned toward religion even as, like Saddam's regime, it seeks to maintain its image of hostility to radical Islam.
Speaking at a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference's Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Damascus on May 23, 2009, Bashir al-Asad endorsed the group's theme of "Promoting Islamic Solidarity," condemned the "ferocious campaign against Islam with the objective of tarnishing its image as a frame of reference in terms of the civilization and religion of our peoples," and beseeched the gathered Arab leaders to become more religiously conservative, declaring, "How can we defend a religion whose obligations we fail to carry out: these obligations of unifying our ranks and positions, stating the word of truth against the arrogant, and defending our honor and dignity against those who usurp them?" Although Asad paid lip service to curtailing terrorism (albeit with rhetoric infused with moral relativism), his depiction of the threat posed to Islam by the West brought to mind the belligerent anti-Westernism of 'Abdullah 'Azzam, Osama bin Laden's intellectual mentor, more than it did the Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser or Baath Party founder Michel 'Aflaq.
Syria is now behaving like Saudi Arabia did in the 1990s and early 2000s when it chose to export Islamist radicalism while denying its own culpability and its vulnerability to attacks from the same quarter. Asad should heed history, however. Just as an Al-Qaeda blowback struck Saudi Arabia in the end, so, too, could Damascus's coddling and support for jihad abroad come back to haunt Syria.
Indeed, this appears to be a possibility to which Al-Qaeda theoreticians are not blind. Among the documents found in the Sinjar cache was a lengthy and detailed tract examining the lessons learned from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's violent campaign in Syria. It found that the brotherhood lacked a comprehensive plan, was fractured into too many groups, failed to indoctrinate sufficiently, had weak public relations, and was too dependent on outsiders for resources. Al-Qaeda blamed the failure of jihad in Syria up to Hama on failed Muslim Brotherhood leadership but found that "most of the base members, some of the mid level leaders, and maybe a few high level leaders are innocent and decent people … Those faithful were driven to the jihad with true resolve; they willed their leaders to act. Unfortunately all their efforts went in vain despite … the abundance of possibilities, and they set an example for 'Jihad Quality' by working diligently, persistently and silently, and by avoiding in-house and partisan bickering." Al-Qaeda's analysts found the ground in Syria still fertile for jihad should Al-Qaeda spark a movement that had learned the lessons of the past.
The Obama administration may hope to cultivate Bashir al-Asad as a partner for peace, but diplomatic ambition should not trump reality. As Asad plays with fire, far more than Syria could get burned.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a senior lecturer at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.
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 Brian Fishman, ed., Bombers, Bank Accounts & Bleedout: Al-Qa'ida's Road in and Out of Iraq (West Point, New York: Harmony Project, 2008), p. 6.
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 Ibid., pp. 24-6.
 Ibid., p. 62.
 Fishman, ed., Bombers, Bank Accounts & Bleedout, p. 3; Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, "Becoming a Foreign Fighter: A Second Look at the Sinjar Records," in Fishman, ed., Bombers, Bank Accounts & Bleedout, p. 32.
 Felter and Fishman, "Becoming a Foreign Fighter," p. 36.
 Ibid., pp. 40-1.
 Ibid., pp. 45-6, 56-7.
 Ibid., pp. 47, 53.
 Anonymous, "Smuggling, Syria, and Spending," in Fishman, ed., Bombers, Bank Accounts & Bleedout, pp. 86-7, 90, 91.
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 "Chapter One: Observations on the Jihad Ordeal in Syria," AFGP-2002-600080, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, trans., accessed Sept. 22, 2009.
 "Chapter Two: Lessons Learned from the Armed Jihad Ordeal in Syria," AFGP-2002-600080, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, trans., accessed Sept. 22, 2009.