Story Stream
recent articles

The details of this raid, as recounted by Fares, were not only confirmed by an unnamed Obama administration official cited by CNN at the time but then later substantiated and expanded upon in an essay for Foreign Policy published several months later - in October 2012 - and written Michael R. Gordon and Wesley S. Morgan, based on an excerpt from Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor's book, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. (In a further sign of al-Fares' credibility, he also told the BBC shortly after his defection that not only would Assad use chemical weapons if he felt severely threatened by the opposition but he'd likely already done so.)

This accusation of complicity with al-Qaeda was corroborated recently by another regime defector in an interview scarcely noticed by the Western press. Affaq Ahmad, the former right-hand man of General Jamil Hasan, the head of Syria's Air Force intelligence and one of Assad's most brutal and trusted henchman, defected after the regime's kidnapping and murder of Hamza al-Khatib in 2011. He first went to Jordan and now is based somewhere in France. He said that the mukhabarat has thoroughly infiltrated jihadist and non-jihadist rebel groups in Syria at the command level and - even more significant - that it controls several brigades that have simply stopped fighting regime forces altogether. Ahmad's comments are worth quoting at length:

The infiltration usually is focused on the sponsors, the grand Sheikh, or the top leaders of the groups, and mainly via manipulating the sources of financial support.

Currently, there are more than 25 brigades in the Free Syrian Army [Ahmad appears to use this term to encompass both jihadists and non-jihadists -ed] in Aleppo, and Hama that do not get close to the regime forces, nor get in fights with them. They also decline to get into fights in the coastal areas due to an agreement between them and the regime that had been brokered by the financial backers of these brigades.

Actually, the jihadist groups and brigades were very useful for the regime because they provided a justification for the regime's insistence on a military solution, and provided some legitimacy under the cover of the War on Terror.

These groups did not cross the red lines that were agreed on by the regime and their sponsors. This included the regime accepting the killing by those groups of Alawis and Druze in order to use that to convince these minorities to rally around the regime and hold on to it.

Which is certainly barbaric enough a plan for Assad to take up. The Palestine Branch of Syrian military intelligence and the Special Operations Division of Air Force intelligence, headed by Colonel Suhail Hassan, are the mukhabarat bureaus in charge of overseeing the infiltration effort, Ahmad explained.

Elizabeth O'Bagy of the Syrian Emergency Task Force relayed the following anecdote to me. A few FSA commanders recently went to one of the tribal authorities (not on anyone's side in the revolution but its own) and complained about al-Nusra's parlays with the regime and tribes of Deir Ezzor designed to divvy up the profits from the Syrian oil sector. The tribal authority confirmed everything but told the FSA commanders not to raise a fuss because "we're making a lot money on oil sales." O'Bagy also said that al-Nusra and the Islamic State is rumored to have cut a deal with the regime not to participate on front-lines of battles and reduce spectacular attacks in exchange for being allowed to govern their own territories in the north.

"That is what happened in Raqqa," O'Bagy said. "It was a negotiated solution."

What this means is that al-Qaeda's rampage through Syria, now the latest obsession of counterterrorism and Pentagon officials, is not really a simply case of "blowback"; it's more like a controlled demolition by an extremely savvy contractor. This should also complicate one of the more brittle cliches you continue to hear Washington, which is that we don't really know who's who in the opposition. That may be true, but the more important question is: do we even remember who's who in the regime?