Is the Assad Regime in League with al-Qaeda?

Opposition groups and their Western backers say that despite claims to be fighting terrorism, Bashar Assad is colluding with extremists

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Reuters

A mural of President Assad riddled with holes on the facade of the police academy in Aleppo in 2013.

For months, anti-regime activist claims that the Syrian government has cultivated a beneficial relationship with al-Qaeda groups in order to undermine the opposition have fallen on deaf ears. After all, the idea that Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has staked his leadership platform on a campaign against “terrorists”—his term for all anti-government fighters and supporters—would engage with the most radical of all rebel groups, reeks of conspiracy theories. Yet an emerging consensus among analysts and Western diplomats reveals that there might be some truth to the accusations after all. The opposition is now hoping that a shift in the current Syria narrative—which pits the regime against dangerous Islamist extremists—may help spur an international push to remove Assad from power, according to Rami Jarrah, a well-regarded Syrian anti-regime activist who is currently in Geneva on the sidelines of the talks.

As peace talks between Syrian government officials and representatives of the opposition stuttered through a third, largely inconclusive, day in Geneva, the more controversial issues appear to have been set aside in favor of discussions about so called “confidence-building measures” such as improving access for humanitarian groups, potential prisoner releases and localized ceasefires. These are promising gains for a beleaguered civilian population, but are likely to achieve little on the political front.

Regime representatives maintain that the biggest threat to Syria—and the region—is the growing influence of al-Qaeda-linked terror groups among the rebels. “We have to agree on a formula where all terrorist organizations should be fought by all Syrians and be expelled,” Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad told the New York Times, “Those who are financing, supporting, arming and harboring terrorists should be made accountable.” Perhaps they should start with themselves, suggests one Western diplomat involved in the negotiations. “It is clear that the regime has a relationship of convenience with al-Qaeda,” he says, speaking on condition of anonymity. Citing his nation’s intelligence findings, he says that Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, the two al-Qaeda linked rebel groups operating in Syria, have benefited financially by those connections. “Al-Qaeda has taken control of oil producing areas and is selling oil to regime forces, indicating a relationship with the regime.” It wouldn’t be the first time, he adds. Assad is believed to have turned a blind eye as al-Qaeda fighters set up training grounds and sanctuaries in Syria during the American war in Iraq. “We well know the history of the regime’s support for al Qaeda in Iraq [during the war].”

The regime has dismissed allegations of collusion as propaganda, claiming that it is the biggest victim of al-Qaeda attacks—and that despite all the accusations, no one has produced solid proof. Both groups call for the overthrow of the Assad regime, but ISIS has made it clear that it sees the establishment of an Islamic caliphate as a priority, and is spending more efforts protecting its territorial gains from rival rebel groups than attacking regime targets.

Another Western diplomat, drawing from different intelligence sources, confirms that there is regular contact between regime forces and al-Qaeda elements, but he is not sure that it amounts to outright collusion. “I have no doubt that there are links,” he says. “But ISIS’ indirect assistance to the regime through oil sales, and the regime’s implicit acceptance of ISIS presence in some areas, may just be a tactical alliance that allows both entities to pursue the same short term goals.”

That may be the case, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out at Assad anyway, highlighting the hypocrisy of a nation that claims to fight terror as a negotiating tactic. “[Assad is]” trying to make himself the protector of Syria against extremists, when he himself has even been funding some of those extremists – even purposely ceding some territory to them in order to make them more of a problem so he can make the argument that he is somehow the protector against them,” he told reporters on January 17. “We’re not going to be fooled.”

The allegations, even if proven, are unlikely to alter events on the ground in Syria. The U.S. and its allies have made it clear they are unwilling to use military force against Assad. Given all the other, better documented accusations flung against the regime, allegations that the government has a commercial relationship with elements aligned with al-Qaeda won’t substantially change those calculations. But it could help refocus the discussions at Geneva as talks continue. For the beleaguered opposition, that would be enough.

with reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut

(VIDEO: Recent Report Suggests Systematic Killings And Torture By Assad Regime)

23 comments
thoreauhd
thoreauhd

TIME is such a NAZ| rag, it's unbearable.  How freaking stupid and evil are you people?  Your Messiah Obama is training, funding(as in paying a salary to), and arming Jabhat al-Nusra.

TomHes
TomHes

Absolute BS in what used to be a well-regarded, neutral and objective medium is deplorable. The 'emerging consensus' is not proven anywhere in the article and will be quite difficult to prove as it absolute bullocks. Western intelligence agencies are working together with the Assad regime where it comes to stopping the foreign supports of Al Qaeda entering the country: that means that the emerging consensus is (at least in the intelligence community) that Assad is protecting Syria and the West from Al Qaeda.

JohannSebastianPhilobiblos
JohannSebastianPhilobiblos

This article, besides being patently false, only reflects on your magazine's integrity: given that al Qaeda is supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey (a truck with weapons intended for al Qaeda was just stopped there) and indirectly by the Obama Administration and the British, your assertions boggle the mind. You have become a bearer of (cheap) disinformation, evocative of the late and unlamented Soviet Union's. This is worthy of the (old Soviet) Pravda.

In addition to promoting a lie, your article shows no respect to the victims of al Qaeda, the Christians, the Alawites and Sunnis who have stood up to these killers (who have been armed by those our government supports).

Shame on you!

Amazon Panda
Amazon Panda

Did they discover a large oil reserve in there too ? might as well spread Freedom and Democracy over there also . and whatever the country next to it .

Adrian Kingcanovic
Adrian Kingcanovic

Interesting thought I dont know if this is sooo true but a instrumentalization of the al-qaeda affiliated groups is quite possible also a kind of acceptance by the regime with orders to avoid army confrontation with exactly the groups fighting the fsa and islamic front at this time.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards

Riiiiggghhhhttt.....The same Sunni/Saudi backed extremists that are fighting him and killing Christians, Alawhites and Shiites in Syria and across the border in Iraq? Please stop with the lies, it only discredits you and makes nothing you say believable.

Robert Potts
Robert Potts

Lol if they know we know everything will be exposed

Esteban Arjona
Esteban Arjona

Playing on both sides with sunni and shia ??? WTF?

Ben Wright
Ben Wright

After all the criticism you guys take for posting fake news, I just want to thank you for posting real news.

vetramon
vetramon

Aryn Baker: the invention of the gas attacks didn't fulfil its hysterical end with the UN and the rest of the world. Later came the photographs of the supposed criminal behaviour of the Assad regime, again with no results from the sane world, and now this, your invention of the cozy relationship of the Assad with the Al Qaeda murderous terrorism. Aryn, do you think, Assad is going to risk his relationship with Russia, knowing what the terrorists have meant to the Russian before and now? Are you insane?

mildpr
mildpr

Wow! This article is such BS. Come on Time, tell the people about Bandar Bush and his connections with Al-CIADA. Bandar bin Sultan funds the terrorist groups like ISIS and Chechen Muslim extremists and is the financial arm of Al Qaida. This article is nothing but propaganda aimed at defacing the truth about what's really going on in Syria.

agthagola
agthagola

Al-Qaeda is only in the heads of western policy makers. It does not exist on ground anywhere in world. There are many religious groups fighting in different parts of Islamic world and they have local agendas.


cine
cine

This is really quite disingenuous title to start with. Anyone with basic knowledge should know that:

Alqaeda are extremist sunnis.


Assad is from an offshoot of the shia denomination.


Shias are persecuted and restricted in almost ALL sunni dominated countries.


Besides fighting with the "west", Alqaeda's ONLY other targets are shia pilgrims and civilians EVERYWHERE in the muslim world.

I don't know why time would lead with such a stupid title.

demianrb
demianrb

Hello,

Your even taking seriously the idea of a relationship between Al Qaida and the Baath Regime in Syria smell of the old found to be untrue Saddam relationship with Al Qaida." Not only is the idea insane but it smacks of desperation on the parts of those who want to replace Assad.

Therefore, your article’s ending suggesting that it is even true shows to what extent your bias.

Why can't western journalists be objective?