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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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

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