There is a saying that my Lebanese friend told me once; if you understand Middle East politics, then it was explained to you wrong. This was the case this week when former Syrian Ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, gave an interview to The Sunday Telegraph. Fares, who recently defected from the Syrian Government, claimed that an Al Qaeda affiliated group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, colluded with the Syrian Government in a bombing on government buildings in May. The bombing, which killed 55 people, Fares claimed, was an attempt to portray the Free Syrian Army in a negative light and convince the Syrian public that terrorists were destroying the country.
"I know for certain that not a single serving intelligence official was harmed during that explosion, as the whole office had been evacuated 15 minutes beforehand," Fares told the Telegraph. "All the victims were passers by instead. All these major explosions have been have been perpetrated by Al Qaeda through cooperation with the security forces."
Fares' statements were the first to charge that the terrorist organization is working with the Syrian government, countering both intelligence reports and statements from Al Qaeda themselves. In February, the leader of the Sunni terrorist organization, Ayman al-Zaqahiri, called on Muslims to support the rebels in Syria, in opposition to the Assad regime.
“I think he is presenting a combination of known info, speculation, and embellishing a bit” said Steven Heydemann Senior Adviser for Middle East Initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace. “As the number of defections increase, it is going to be important to vet these kinds of comments; they have an incentive to provide sexy information to get back at the regime.
Nevertheless, the actions by Al Qaeda in Syria provide a destabilizing element to the fighting in Syria. Although by all reliable sources Al Qaeda are fighting in opposition of the Syrian government, the terrorist group does not share the same goals of democracy and peace as the Free Syrian Army does.
“They don’t have any kind of political objectives,” said Heydemann of Al Qaeda’s operation in Syria “Their actions are consistent with a broader set of goals, aggressively attacking Shiites and Alawites, and contributing to sectarian polarization.”
In many ways, Al Qaeda fighters are a third party in the conflict in Syria, who look to overthrow the Assad regime, but seek a haven to orchestrate violence and sectarian conflict in a post Assad Syria.
Suuni’s in the North of Lebanon have been housing refugees crossing the boarder from Syria, and many Shiites in Lebanon still strongly support Assad. Al Qaeda would hope to tap into the sectarian polarization in Lebanon., which remain from a bloody 20 year civil war, planning to ignite kayos across the Levant.
But Al-Qaeda and the Syrian regime were once allies in 2003 during the American invasion of Iraq. Al Qaeda fighters set up extensive camps in eastern Syria as a base to attack the Shiite population of and American forces in Iraq, which were aided by the Syrian government and even Mr. Fares himself. Assad and Fares gave weapons, money, and shelter to many of the same Al Qaeda fighters that are now fighting against the Syrian regime, in an attempt to quell the effectiveness of U.S. lead democracy. But now, Al Qaeda fighters have moved across the boarder from Iraq into Syria. In many ways, the group will be drawing on many of the same lessons and fighters they gained during the American invasion, if Assad does indeed fall.
One such strategy would be to attract Suuni members of both the ruling Ba’ath party and Syrian military if they are barred from politically participating in a post-Assad Syria, much like the group did in Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government backed by the United States in 2003, barred members of the Iraqi Ba’athist party and Iraqi military from joining the new government. Many of these leftover fighters and politicians ended up joining Al Qaeda with nowhere else to turn.
Al Qaeda would then seek to divide Syria among sectarian lines, fighting Shiites and Alawite militant groups, particularly Hezbollah. The militant group, which is based in Lebanon, is financially supported by Iran, creating a nightmare scenario for U.S. policy makers as they try to stabilize the region.
But the sectarian conflict has already spilled into Lebanon, even the cosmopolitan capital of Beirut has seen minor skirmishes based on sectarian tension in recent months, showing how volatile the region is.