Investment scandal damages Hezbollah
Even backers question 'Party of God' over ties to indicted financier
By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 26, 2009
YAROUN, LEBANON -- Suleiman's brother was a Hezbollah fighter, killed in the 2006 war with Israel. His house was destroyed by an Israeli shell. And now, his life's fortune is gone, too, lost along with the money of thousands of other Lebanese who put their faith in a billionaire financier with close ties to Hezbollah.
The investment scheme, which is being called the Lebanese version of the Bernie Madoff scandal, threatens to tarnish the Shiite group's carefully cultivated image as a pious defender of the masses that is above the corruption endemic in many of Lebanon's political parties.
As Hezbollah enters the new coalition government and plots its next move in the rough-and-tumble world of Lebanese politics, the "Party of God" is facing unprecedented questions, even among supporters, over its basic integrity.
Suleiman, who would not allow his last name to be published, said he gave $261,000 saved over 22 years of work to Youssef Faour, a partner of financier Salah Ezzedine. Suleiman, 40, said he was "comforted by Ezzedine's ties with Hezbollah," which are well-known, and ignored warning signs that something was wrong.
It is not known yet whether
Ezzedine's investments were fraudulent and who, if anyone, profited. Ezzedine
and Faour are in custody as their trial slowly progresses.
"These two are just crooks who conned people and stole from them by telling them this was divine money that will bring them 40 percent interest in profit," said Suleiman, a father of five.
Hezbollah has denied any relationship with the financier. During a speech in September, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah said that the group had never encouraged its members to invest with Ezzedine but that it had launched an investigation. He said "a small number" of party officials had invested $4 million with Ezzedine -- a figure the Lebanese media described as significantly understated.
Observers also scoffed at the
notion that Hezbollah had nothing to do with Ezzedine, noting a long track
record of ties.
Either way, the damage to Hezbollah's reputation is real.
The group and its top
officials have long had access to large sums of money by virtue of generous
support from Shiite businessmen and from Iran. But Hezbollah has gone out of its
way to avoid flamboyant displays of wealth, instead projecting itself as an
organization ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with residents of the Shiite
slums of southern Beirut and the villages of southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah's propaganda advertises its membership as a group of dedicated and selfless "martyrs" who liberated the land and whose only agenda is to protect it from Israel. To make up for a lack of government services, the group has built its own network of schools, hospitals and even financial institutions.
That track record has set Hezbollah apart from other parties in Lebanon and from the Palestinian organization Fatah, whose political corruption is legendary. Nasrallah has signaled that he knows how dangerous corruption scandals could be for his party. At a recent meeting with female Hezbollah members, he reportedly spoke out against "Envoy culture" -- referring to the SUV brand that is popular among party members and that has become a symbol of their affluence.
Allegations of involvement in the drug trade have further damaged Hezbollah's reputation. In a recent speech, Nasrallah raised the issue and spoke of an attempt to "destroy the culture of resistance."
Some wonder whether his statements will be enough.
"Hezbollah is not the first
revolutionary movement to be corrupted by money, and it won't be the last,"
wrote columnist Sateh Noureddine in the pro-Hezbollah newspaper As-Safir.
Much of the change in behavior can be traced to the aftermath of Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel, when government compensation money flooded impoverished Shiite neighborhoods devastated by Israeli attacks.
Some of the money went toward reconstruction, but much of what was left ended up with Ezzedine. Some Hezbollah backers sold their land and their homes so they would have extra money to invest with the businessman, who promised eye-popping returns. He even appealed to his customers' piety by insisting that his investment strategies were compatible with Islamic banking principles, which generally prohibit interest-bearing accounts.
Ezzedine's services sparked a
boom -- new cars, restaurants, cafes and fashions.
"All logic and reason suddenly disappeared in one day, as well as the simplicity in life and its requirements," wrote Ibrahim al-Amin, editor in chief of Al-Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah newspaper.
But now, the morality of Hezbollah's cadres is being questioned for the first time by supporters suffering amid the country's rough economic situation, said Mona Fayyad, a sociology professor at the Lebanese University.
"People have started asking
questions. Where is the money coming from? Till now, they avoided speaking about
this loudly, because they are terrorized," she said.
In the long run, she said, damage to Hezbollah is unavoidable because its success, to a large extent, depends on an image of superiority that its cadres reflected -- and that is now gone.
"Sayyed Nasrallah used to address his supporters by calling them the most honorable people, placing them above all other humans," she said. "What happened showed they are just as corruptible as everybody else."
Ibrahim is a special correspondent.
Syria's Path to Islamist Terror
By Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
Monday, November 23, 2009
While the Obama administration and congressional leaders may justify renewed engagement with Syria with their desire to jumpstart the Middle East peace process, they ignore the very issue that lies at the heart of the Syrian threat to U.S. national security: Syrian support for radical Islamist terror. This may seem both illogical and counterfactual given past antagonism between the ‘Alawite-led regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is overwhelming evidence that President Bashir al-Asad has changed Syrian strategic calculations and that underpinning terror is crucial to the foreign policy of the country.
On February 14, 2005, a huge bomb killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri as his motorcade drove through Beirut. All eyes fell on Damascus. Syria's leaders had motive: Hariri was a prominent Lebanese nationalist who opposed their attempts to grant Lebanon's pro-Syrian president Émile Lahoud an unconstitutional third term. The Syrians had the means to carry out such an attack: Their army had occupied Lebanon for more than fifteen years. Syrian military intelligence (Shu‘bat al-Mukhabarat al-‘Askariya) operated freely throughout the tiny republic and maintained operational networks there. Asad had actually threatened Hariri: Druze leader Walid Jumblatt reported that at a meeting with Asad and Hariri a few months before the latter's murder, Asad told him, "Lahoud is me … If you and [French president Jacques] Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon," a remark Jumblatt interpreted as a death threat to Hariri.
Following the assassination, Syria became an international pariah. U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan dispatched a fact-finding mission. This mission resulted in the establishment of an international, independent investigating commission headed initially by German judge Detlev Mehlis. U.S. president George W. Bush and French president Jacques Chirac, two leaders whose views of the Middle East seldom coincided, agreed to isolate Syria diplomatically. The State Department withdrew its ambassador, Margaret Scobey, and maintained only a lower-level diplomatic presence in Damascus. Under immense pressure, the Syrian army finally withdrew from Lebanon. But, over subsequent months and years, as Asad detected chinks in the West's diplomatic solidarity--and as U.S. members of Congress began to defy the White House and re-engage with Asad--the Syrian regime began to put cooperation with the U.N. investigators on the back burner. Today, Syrian cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the successor to the more ambitious Investigation Commission, is negligible.
While many in Washington and other capitals continue to perceive Syria as a largely secular state with a leadership fundamentally hostile to radical Islam, today's Syrian leadership encourages both radical Islam and international Al-Qaeda.Obama's Approach to Syria
Barack Obama campaigned on a platform which made engagement central to his foreign policy. "Not talking [to adversaries] doesn't make us look tough--it makes us look arrogant," he declared during his campaign. In his inaugural address, he declared, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
The Syrian regime signaled
that it would accept Obama's offer, so long as the White House's hand preceded
the unclenching of the Syrian fist. In a congratulatory telegram to Obama, the
Syrian leader expressed "hope that dialogue would prevail to overcome the
difficulties that have hindered real progress toward peace, stability, and
prosperity in the Middle East."
While the Syrian regime had yet to cooperate with the Hariri investigation, cease its sponsorship of and support for terrorism, stop interfering in Lebanon, or stop helping Hezbollah build up its rocket force, the Obama administration wasted little time in easing pressure on Damascus. This rush to dialogue was undertaken in order to create a more conducive atmosphere for engagement. On March 7, 2009, the State Department dispatched Jeffrey D. Feltman, assistant secretary of state and the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria in more than four years, to Damascus for talks with Syria's foreign minister. The Obama administration called an abrupt end to the moratorium initiated during the Bush administration forbidding U.S. officials' attendance at Syrian embassy functions in Washington when it sent Feltman and senior National Security Council aides to Syrian National Day festivities. Feltman's participation in the renewed engagement was particularly symbolic given his previous posting as ambassador to Lebanon during the Cedar Revolution of 2005 when he led the diplomatic charge to rid Lebanon of Syrian influence and troops.
On June 24, 2009, the State Department announced that it would once again nominate an ambassador for the U.S. embassy in Damascus. Just over a month later, the Obama administration announced that it would ease sanctions on Syria. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly explained that "Senator [George] Mitchell [the president's Middle East envoy] told President Assad that the U.S. would process all eligible applications for export licenses as quickly as possible."
While the easement did not
include those sanctions imposed by Congress in the wake of Hariri's
assassination, they, nonetheless, reflect the White House's desire to bring
Syria in from the cold. Nor will Congress necessarily act as a check on this
enthusiasm to roll back even those sanctions. Less than two years after Hariri's
assassination, senators Arlen Specter (Democrat of Pennsylvania), Bill Nelson
(Democrat of Florida), John Kerry (Democrat of Massachusetts), and Christopher
Dodd (Democrat of Connecticut) traveled to Syria to promote engagement. Four
months later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also visited Asad for the same purpose,
declaring, "The road to Damascus is a road to peace."
Can Syria Be Divorced from Terrorism?
Flipping Syria away from its axis with Iran is a diplomatic priority for the Obama administration as it seeks to revitalize the Middle East peace process. Many Western diplomats and analysts hoped that Syria would reform when the young, Western-educated Bashir al-Asad succeeded his hard-line father Hafiz as president of Syria in 2000. But the Damascus spring proved fleeting. Syria remained a police state at home and an enabler of terrorism abroad with policies rooted firmly in rejection of Israel's right to exist and opposition to U.S. regional interests. Should Syria be flipped, the theory goes, not only would it mitigate the threat of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but it could enable Syria to join forces with Lebanon to make peace with Israel. According to Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, "Syria is a strategic linchpin for dealing with Iran and the Palestinian issue. Don't forget, everything in the Middle East is connected."
To seek a resolution to conflict in the Middle East is a noble goal. And yet, to base that deal on Syrian goodwill is not only naïve but requires a perception of Syria and its intentions that is seriously out-of- date. While many in Washington and other capitals continue to perceive Syria as a largely secular state with a leadership fundamentally hostile to radical Islam, today's Syrian leadership encourages both radical Islam and international Al-Qaeda. The traditional assumption that support for extremist Islam is limited to Saudi Arabia and wealthy Persian Gulf financiers is no longer valid. Bashir al-Asad is playing a dangerous game, one that is not only inimical to U.S. interests in the short term but also employs a strategy that could undercut Syrian stability in the long term.
It was not long after the start of military operations against Iraq in March 2003 that the Pentagon grew concerned at Syrian support for the insurgency there. Speaking at a press conference held in Baghdad in 2004, Gen. Richard Myers, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "There are other foreign fighters. We know for a fact that a lot of them find their way into Iraq through Syria for sure." According to some estimates, perhaps 80 percent of foreign
fighters who infiltrated Iraq crossed the Syrian border. These were disproportionately responsible for the most devastating suicide bombings in Iraq. An Italian investigation of foreign fighter recruitment in Italy found that "Syria has functioned as a hub for an Al-Qaeda network." Syrian president Asad repeatedly denied any involvement in facilitating terrorism in Iraq. In 2007, he told ABC's Diane Sawyer: "If you stoke [terrorism], it will burn you. So if we have this chaos in Iraq, it will spill over to Syria … So saying this [that Syria aids Iraq's insurgency], it's like saying that the Syrian government is working against the Syrian interest."
Two common assumptions handicap an understanding of terrorist networks. The first is that Shi‘i and Sunni groups or governments do not cooperate. Hence, some scholars argue that it is impossible that the Iranian regime could supply arms to the Taliban. In 2007, Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan, wrote, "Among the more fantastic charges that Bush made against Iran was that its government was actively arming and helping the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. In fact, the Taliban are extremist Sunnis who hate and have killed large numbers of Shiites. Shiite Iran is unlikely to support them." The evidence that they have done so, however, is overwhelming as U.S. forces have seized truckloads of Iranian weaponry en route to the Taliban.
Another false argument--and one that applies specifically to Syria--is that secular regimes do not support radical Islamist groups. The Egyptian government, for example, has long turned a blind eye to the supply of Hamas terrorists through tunnels from Egyptian territory. Libya, too, has engaged in the practice, supporting the Islamist terrorist group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines even as Libyan leader Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi sought to present himself to the West as an ally in the fight against radical Islam. To ensure U.S. national security, U.S. analysis must be based on reality rather than image. Despite Asad's stated animosity toward Islamist terrorism and his regime's trumpeting of its own vulnerability to radical Islamism, the Syrian record shows a willingness not only to tolerate but also to aid Islamist groups and assist Al-Qaeda violence.
The assumption that the Syrian
government would not support Islamism is rooted in the regime's troubled history
with radical Islam. The originally Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood established a
branch in Syria in the late 1950s. The group remained quiet for two decades but,
in 1979, it began to engage in terrorism, most famously when members of the
group murdered several dozen ‘Alawi military cadets near Aleppo. Three years
later, after some 200 Islamists staged an insurrection in Hama, Syria's fifth
largest city, the Syrian military razed much of the city, killing between 10,000
and 20,000 civilians, including women and children. In the aftermath of Hama,
many analysts note that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence
although only the most prescient Syria hands have observed that, behind the
regime's veneer of secularism, Hafiz al-Asad subsequently sought to co-opt
In recent years, however, the Syrian government has blamed domestic terrorism on shadowy and often unnamed Islamist groups. In July 2005, the Syrian government returned alleged Islamist terrorists to Saudi Arabia and Tunisia although, more often, Damascus has refused to extradite terrorists, suggesting that the decision to release is linked more to immediate diplomatic necessity rather than a principled commitment to combat terrorism. Still, the Syrian government has sought to project an image of victimization. In June 2006, Syria's tightly-controlled national television showed the aftermath of a gun battle in Damascus between Islamists and state security forces, suggesting that the government--normally secretive on security matters--wanted to cast itself as a victim of Islamism. The Syrian government cited the September 27, 2008 car bombing in Damascus, which killed seventeen people, as an indication that Islamist terrorists--in this case it named Fatah al-Islam--had targeted the country for its cooperation with U.S. efforts to strengthen security along its border with Iraq. Pointing the finger at Fatah al-Islam may also have been meant to deflect suspicion that the Syrian government had supported the group's activities in Lebanon. A precedent of staged violence, such as the attack on the Danish embassy in Damascus during the Muhammad cartoon crisis, suggests analysts should consider the possibility that other such incidents were also faked. Asad's stated animosity toward radical Islam and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups is mirrored in Al- Qaeda's traditional hatred of the ‘Alawi regime in Syria.
A year before the 9/11 attacks, a leading Al-Qaeda tactician, ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Hakim (better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mus‘ab as-Suri) penned a lengthy polemic against the Syrian regime. Suri described the ‘Alawis as heretics, fanatical Shi‘a descended from Jews and Zoroastrians. About Hama, he related not only how the "lives of more than 45,000 [sic] unarmed Sunni civilians were claimed" but also how the Syrian security forces continued to kill an additional 30,000 Sunni Muslims over the subsequent fourteen years. After a rambling religious discourse on the meaning and necessity of jihad, Suri concluded, "It is not permissible for Muslims to stay under their [‘Alawi] rule for one moment ...They must be pursued and killed to cleanse them from Greater Syria and the face of the earth. They should be killed as individuals and groups, and Sunni Muslims must ambush and kill them all."
Such hatred is real, but in
the Middle East alliances shift and enmity can be deferred. Enemies cooperate
against those whom they consider a mutual threat. Iran and the Taliban--who
hardly like each other and were on the verge of military conflict in
1998--nevertheless found themselves allied only a decade later in efforts to
undermine U.S. stability efforts in Afghanistan. For all his diplomatic promises
about non-cooperation with terrorists, the evidence that Bashir al-Asad aids and
abets Al-Qaeda is damning.
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 is a resident
scholar at AEI.