Following the US invasion in Iraq in 2003 many high-ranking members in Syria’s goverment feared they would be the next victim in the war on terror. Thus they decided to counter the Bush-Doctrine, namely toppling authoritarian governments, by supporting the Iraqi resistance. Former members of Saddam Hussein’s goverment received aid as well as the Salafis. This also had the benefit for Syria that they could get rid of their own Salafis (Neumann 2014).
Although Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad tried to destroy any religious opposition to his government – which resulted in the massacre of Hama in 1982 when his troops killed 20,000 people and resulted in the emmigration of most of the religious leaders – even Syria wasn’t excempted from religious opposition. As all Arab countries in the 1990s, Syria too faced a revival of religion. This was especially due to corruption, economic and political grievances and a worldview that, as a result, Syria’s secular system doesn’t provide any perspective (Neumann 2014).
Bashar al-Assad was aware of this revival and wanted to exploit it to gain more power when he became president in 2000. In his first years in office he tried to make sure that the Islamic sector plays according to his rules, especially by controlling mosques and religious leaders, by founding Islamic banks and by loosening laws such as the ban of the headscarve or prayer in the armed forces. As Peter Neumann from King’s College in London notes, the control by this time didn’t include the Jihadist sector, which was gaining popularity among Salafis especially in suburbs and the countryside such as Dara in the south, Idlib in the north or Aleppo’s suburbs. In order to control Islamists in the country, the government infiltrated their ranks. According to a US State Deparment cable leadked by WikiLeaks, a Syrian intelligence officer confirmed to the US that they also started to infiltrate Jihadists ‚and only at the opportune moment do we move‘. At the same time Syria was a US partner against the war on terror and at least until 2005 did the US transfer suspects for ‚interrogation‘ to Syria (Neumann 2014).
Syria Establishes Ties to Iraqi Baathists
The US invasion to Iraq in 2003 had an impact in Syria, too. As already mentioned above, Syria feared that it would be next and also saw it as a chance to get rid of the rising Jihadist sector. Its own and foreign radicals were sent to Iraq while former Baath leaders came to Syria and founded the `New Regional Command` to collect money and weapons and train fighters (Ricks 2004).
By supporting those groups Assad hoped to gain influence in Iraq as he assumed that sooner or later the US will withdraw. Although Syrian and Iraqi Baathist have the same ideology, they had a bad relationship after the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s since Syria supported Iran. Yet now the Iraqis had millions of dollars and still remained influential in Iraq, two reasons for Assad to rethink his relations with them (Naylor 2007).
In 2007 a conference between Iraqi insurgent group was held in Zabadani close to Damascus. At this conference seven insurgent groups formed an alliance with the declared aim of toppling the goverment in Baghdad. Iran, Syria’s main ally, pressured Syria to cancel the conference – unsuccessfully. Teheran was already a big player in Iraq, but was still missing influence over the Sunnis and the Baathists there. This might be the reason why the conference wasn’t cancelled. Hundreds of Jihadists came, among them Harith al-Dari (head of the Association of Muslim Scholars) and Nizar Samari (spokesman of the conference and former media advisor of Saddam Hussein) (Kersting and Tanter 2009).
In 2009 another conference was held at the same location. This time, the Iraqi government in form of Major General Hussein Ali Kamal had somebody in the conference. Participants included high-ranking Syrian military and intelligence personell, Iraqi Baathists and members of ISI (Islamic State in Iraq). The conversation was about a massive attack in Baghdad. Iraq then increased security meassures, but couldn’t prevent the attack: on 19 August 2009 three bombs hit the Iraqi Treasury and left 101 one dead and over 600 wounded. As a result bilateral relations between Baghdad and Damascus soured and Turkey wanted to mediate. Yet the Syrian delegate Ali Mamlouk smiled and said he doesn’t recognise anybody from a government from a country that is occupied by the US (Chulov 2014).
Iraq as an Outlet for Syria’s Radicals
A famous Syrian Islamic preacher was Abu al-Qaqa. He was often accused by fellow Jihaists to being a sole agent for Assad. Yet his influence was enorm. After the US Invasion in 2003 he appeared on television and encouraged Muslims to go to Iraq and fight against the US. He also emphasised that the anger of Syrians should never be unleashed against their own government, which explains why he was left alone. Al-Qaqa also stressed out that security is a good thing and that this is the main reason why religious anger shouldn’t be released in Syria (Mouyabed 2006).
His life in Aleppo has always been comfortable, he could walk around freely (although he had bodyguards), had nice cars and a nice appparment. The Aleppine mercantile class supported him whenever they could and thus his influence was enormous. Whether Syrian intelligence created or just used him is a matter of controversery. Yet it has always been evident that he helped Assad to having his streets free of radicals (Mouyabed 2006), while thousands attended al-Qaqa`s lectures. According to Neumann al-Qaqa provided Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, with a huge number of fighters. In 2003 the majority of foreign fighters in Iraq came from Syria (Neumann 2014).
Syria becomes a Transit for Foreign Fighters
Yet Syrians were soon outnumbered by Libyans and Saudis. In 2006 the US Army discovered documents during an operation in Sinjar, Western Iraq, which were provided detailed information about al Qaeda’s foreign fighters: names, country of origin, occupation, contacts at home and – most importantly for this article – their route to Iraq. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point published the findings The vast majority of the foreign fighters that entered Iraq did so via Syria (Felter and Fishman 2007, p.20).
Most of them arrived via Damascus International Airport, where they were first detained by Assad’s intelligence. From there they were brought to Sadnaya military prison close to Damascus. If they were considered as a security threat to Syria they remained there – if not, they were brought to Iraq (Abi-Habib 2014).
The route was mainly via Dayr al-Zawr, where also most of the Syrian foreign fighters came from. From there the Jihadists went by bus to Abu Kalmal and then either by bus or by foot to al-Qa’im in Iraq (Felter and Fishman 2007, p.21) .
Assad Reduces Support for Insurgency
In 2005 it became clear that the US mission in Iraq was at risk and that Syria wouldn’t need to fear the US anymore. Further were the huge numbers of Iraqi refugees challenging the Syrian economy, AQI started targeting Shiites in Iraq instead of US forces (a horror for Syria’s ruling Alawites) and Syria started preferring stability in the region. In 2007 Assad also decided to reduce support for the Iraqi insurgency and al-Qaqa was killed under mysterious circumstances. Yet his funeral rather made the impression of an official government funeral with even high-ranking intelligence and military officers participating. Nevertheless, as can be seen by the conference in 2009, Assad remained influential in both Jihadist and Baathist sectors.
The Sinjar Documents also showed that al-Qaqa was not the only one in Syria: there were approximately 100 people like him who helped foreigners going to Iraq and stored weapons in Damascus, Latakia City, Deir ez-Zour and other big cities in Syria. With time Syria also lost control over the groups operating in Iraq. The main consequence of this policy was that Syria now received access to the international Jihadist network and gained importance for AQI, the Islamic State’s predecessor (Neumann 2014).
The US often pressured Assad to halt his support for the Iraqi insurgency and sometimes Syria even arrested high-ranking Iraqi Baathists and Jihadists. Yet the US always said they know Syria could do much more, which even led to a point when Syria stopped diplomatic relations with the US in 2005 (Kersting and Tanter 2009).
The Revival of the Alliance
Soon after demonstrations errupted in Syria in 2011, Assad released prisoners under a general amnesty with which he claimed to show his good-will. Among those who were released were also prisoners from Sadnya, where foreign Jihadists were imprisoned during the Iraqi insurgency. Syria has claimed that those who were released never committed a terrorist attack, but Bassam Barabandi, a diplomat in the Syrian Ministry for Foreign Affairs at that time and meanwhile defected, told the Wall Street Journal that Assad feared a peaceful revolution. The result was that Assad released Jihadists so that the world could either decide between him or Jihadists (Abi-Habib 2014).
Former Iraqi Baathists, such as Haji Bakr, the mastermind behind IS, also established good relations with AQI (more on this topic soon) while at the same time having good relations to Assad. It was a triangle between Assad, Iraqi Baathists and Jihadists fighting in Iraq. All thought they could use the other group to gain power. Even before the US withdrew, Syria wanted to see less of this alliance. Yet after the Arab Spring the alliance experienced a revival. In January 2014 the Syrian air force started to bomb solely rebel positions when they were fighting against ISIS. Even when the group took over Raqqa, they nearby Syrian military base Tabaqa was left alone – until ISIS seized modern weapons in Mosul and felt strong enough to brake the alliance with Assad by attacking the airbase and executing 200 soldiers (Reuter 2015).
Although the fighting between Assad and Islamic State has increased, contacts remain. A recent BBC documentary shows in detail how Assad is purchasing oil from IS and thus providing financial aid to the group (Taylor 2015).
The alliance is obviously only working now for the reason that Assad needs oil and IS money. Yet this doesn’t prevent the two sides from fighting each other. Neumann notes that Assad made the same mistake as the US and Saudi Arabia did in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union: they thought they could use Jihadists for their own purposes.
Abi-Habib, Maria (22.08.2014): Assad Policies Aided Rise of Islamic State Militant Group. Online available http://www.wsj.com/articles/assad-policies-aided-rise-of-islamic-state-militant-group-1408739733.
Chulov, Martin (11.12.2014): Isis: the inside story. Online available http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/11/-sp-isis-the-inside-story
Felter, Joseph and Brian Fishman (02.01.2007): A First Look at the Sinjar Records. Online available https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/al-qaidas-foreign-fighters-in-iraq-a-first-look-at-the-sinjar-records.
Kersting, Stephen and Raymond Tanter (Spring 2009): Syria’s Role in the Iraq Insurgency in Focus Spring 2009 Vol.III: No.1. Online available http://www.jewishpolicycenter.org/827/syrias-role-in-the-iraq-insurgency.
Moubayed, Sami (27.06.2006): Syria’s Abu al-Qaqa: Authentic Jihadist or Imposer? in Terrorism Focus Vol.3, Issue 25. Online available http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=820&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=239&no_cache=1#.VToJ5Xt4TMI.
Naylor, Hugh (07.10.2007): Syria reportedly encourages Sunni insurgents. Online available http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/world/africa/07iht-syria.1.7781943.html?_r=0.
Neumann, Peter (03.04.2014): Suspects into Collaborators. Online available http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n07/peter-neumann/suspects-into-collaborators.
Reuter, Christoph (18.04.2015): Secret Files Reveal the Structre of Islamic State. Onlive available http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-files-show-structure-of-islamist-terror-group-a-1029274.html.
Ricks, Thomas E.: General: Iraqi Insurgents Directed From Syria. Online available http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A5886-2004Dec16.html.
Taylor, Peter (22.04.2015): ‚It`s God`s gift.‘ Islamic Sate fills coffers with Iraqi government cash. Onlinve available http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/22/isis-fills-coffers-with-iraqi-government-cash.