This is a column I put together last month, shortly before the chemical attack outside of Damascus:
Fear of Al-Qaeda is winning the government hearts and minds, but the battle for the Levant is not what it is being portrayed as
While the world was enamored with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the chaos that preceded it, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad joined in on the celebrations with a charm offensive and forcefully denounced “political Islam”, insisting it had failed once and for all. His words have been backed up by his armed forces hammering away at their own cities with artillery, warplanes, and helicopter gunships in a major push to deal a crushing blow to the Free Syrian Army, the coalition of rebels fighting Assad in an uprising that has now left over 100,000 people dead in just over two years of conflict. Few eyebrows – certainly not enough – were raised in the media as Assad towed this line with an air of confidence. His charm clearly had an effect. After all, according to everyone in his government and his close allies, Assad is not only confronting the FSA but also Al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalists who have joined in on the rebellion. If we are to believe them, the Syrian military has been the only force standing between the Middle East and a fanatical new Islamic caliphate since the Arab Spring uprisings began.
Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. For reasons I will explain, the Islamic extremist narrative being peddled in Syria is merely a diabolical ingenuity put out by a megalomaniac who has never been hesitant to lend support or give shelter to the various terrorist organizations that infect the Middle East. In short, anyone who asserts that Assad is a secular ruler fighting against Al-Qaeda is deluding themselves and falling for his tricks line by line. This includes activists like Walid Shoebat, a former terrorist affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and convert to Christianity. Shoebat went on the air with popular radio host Michael Savage just before the 4th of July weekend and lavished praise on the Syrian government for standing up to “political Islam” as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood rule imploded, praise that Savage failed to challenge in any way. His admiration took an even more disturbing turn when he suggested to the American people that they would be better off if Assad was their leader (see it here, time 22:15). According to his logic, America could be kept safe from the likes of the Boston Marathon bombers and the Islamists who dismembered a British soldier in the streets of London back in May if only we had the Syrian dictator in the White House.
Shoebat’s wish for Assad to reign over America would be scary enough if the dictator was actually secular, but his portrayal of Assad is openly dishonest and detached from reality, just like Assad himself is when he attacks political Islam. Contrary to what he says, Assad actually owes his survival these past two years to the Islamic regime in Iran, Hezbollah, and an assortment of sectarian Shiite-Muslim militias that have come rallying to his defense. They make no effort to deny it either; a glimpse through Al-Manar, Fars News Agency, Press TV, the Tehran Times, or any of the other Iranian-led media outlets will show just how invested they are in Assad. It was Hezbollah’s full-throttle invasion (after months of smaller operations) from Lebanon into Syria last month that gave him a strong victory over the rebels in the border town of Qusair, something he is still championing despite claiming to have conquered the opposition over two years ago. Hezbollah, as most people should know, is the terrorist organization whose members spawned the art of suicide bombing in the Muslim world, the first of which massacred nearly 250 American servicemen stationed in Beirut, Lebanon back in 1983. Its arsenal of weaponry and commitment to the destruction of Israel make it an even more dangerous force to be reckoned with than the now-defunct militant wing of the PLO that Shoebat was once involved with.
By serving at the behest of Iran and Hezbollah, Assad is not only a key actor in the advancement of political Islam but also the appointed figurehead of a colonization process to keep Syria open as Iran’s gateway to the Arab world, and to keep the minority ethnicity – the Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam that Assad hails from – at the helm of all major political and military decisions. This makes him a conduit for Islamism, a puppet who has done more to install and maintain it than any other leader in the region, aside from the clerics in Tehran and their mosques that spread such ideas far and wide.
Despite his current predicament, Assad’s extensive connections to terrorists and committed fundamentalists go deeper than his alliance with Iran and its Shiite provocateurs. Before the Syrian uprising collapsed into civil war, the capital, Damascus, was the proud host city for Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, two patrons the Assad regime has served up financial and military support to for years. Like Hezbollah and the old PLO, both of them make violence and war against Israel a top priority…although Hamas has since distanced itself from the Assad regime as his troops and Shiite militias reduce entire towns and cities in Syria to rubble, with most of the bombardment aimed at Sunni Muslims whom Hamas shares faith with. The savage killings of Sunnis is what pitted Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its failed president, Mohammed Morsi, against Assad and even his allies in Iran, who the Brotherhood was originally seeking rapprochement with after deposing 30-year ruler Hosni Mubarak and coming to power.
Pushing aside the Israeli-Palestinian crisis for a moment and the obstacles Assad has put up to inflame it, there is the Al-Qaeda card, Assad’s piece of the diplomatic puzzle that has practically ground action against him to a halt. His framing of events on the ground in Syria as a fight to the death between secularism and Islamism has turned what should be his adversaries into temporary allies, including aspects of the US Republican Party and the conservative movement that have sought to generate some distance between themselves and the Bush years. On the other side, for all the talk about how the Obama Administration is determined to push Assad out with vague plans to give support to the rebels, there is the case of Eric Harroun, a former US soldier the Federal Government has handed down terrorism charges to for fighting alongside the opposition on the Syrian battlefront. With his client facing life in prison if convicted, Harroun’s lawyer recently expressed discontent at the bizarre proceedings of the case, since the administration itself has insisted Assad is no longer a legitimate leader and needs to go. It is worth pointing out that while Harroun is having an example made out of him, fear of terrorism has not stopped the administration from granting travel visas to Assad’s Iranian backers when they seek to address the UN General Assembly or the American public, often with threats and belligerence.
Although “Al-Qaeda” is a loose umbrella name for various groups that share a hardline Sunni ideology, the most feared and dangerous of them operating in Syria today is the Islamic State of Iraq, also known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group responsible for endless cycles of explosions and death over the years in Syria’s eastern neighbor. Even the original Al-Qaeda – the inner circle of Osama Bin Laden that was based in Afghanistan before 9/11 – and the Jabhat Al-Nusra, the most extreme Islamists among the Syrian rebels, have been in conflict with the ISI, doing what they can to avoid being categorized alongside its murderous image. ISI has imposed itself on Syria’s opposition, and ever since it unilaterally merged into Al-Nusra last April (renaming itself the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”), the rebel organization and structure has been in disarray, much to the benefit of Assad and his supporters.
It is not the first time Al-Qaeda and the Syrian Government have benefited from one another. Back during the darkest days of the Iraq War, the regime’s all-seeing security apparatus happily looked the other way and allowed ISI and other extremist fighters over the border and into Iraqi cities. Syria’s former ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Al-Fares, confirmed what many intelligence reports already suspected when he defected last year, insisting that the Assad regime allowed Al-Qaeda operatives to amass in Syria with the goal of waging “resistance” in Iraq and bogging down American efforts to bring stability to the war-torn country. His revelations are hard to deny as it would have been all but impossible for the thousands of mujahideen operatives who converged on Syria to transit into Iraq without the explicit knowledge of Assad and his government.
With all of this in mind and out in the open it should be clear that if the ISI is truly seeking Assad’s overthrow and succeeds, he will end up being nothing more than a victim of his own creation, as opposed to another secular leader falling to a wave of Arab Spring revolutions. However, the ISI’s recent patterns of attack and coordination have made it seem almost as if it is an ally of Assad, or at the very least being manipulated by his agents, whether the ISI know it or not. For one thing, the group has begun targeting the Free Syrian Army and other rebel brigades across Syria, the most recent examples being the assassination of a commanding officer in the coastal city of Latakia on July 11 and attacks on rebel held checkpoints in the northern province of Aleppo, where Assad forces have been losing ground. An even more helpful ISI product for the regime has been the punishing series of car bombs and suicide attacks the group has inflicted on Iraq the past few months, dragging the country back to the brink of chaos and bringing out the Western apologists for third world dictators and Middle Eastern police states – who describe the violence in Iraq as a tragic reminder about why tyrants like Assad are needed, since they keep their people from killing each other (what they prefer not to point out though is that the violence in Syria has become so intense that refugees are actually fleeing into Iraq).
Whether or not Assad can be confronted in a time of global economic calamity and national identity crises is rightfully up for debate, but accepting him for who he is and what he stands for should not be. The facts indicate that an Assad triumph in his country’s ferocious conflict will guarantee more violence and instability in the Middle East and all over the world as Iran and Hezbollah celebrate geopolitical success. If the opposition is defeated and the current trends hold, the spoils of war for Assad’s sadistic, estranged children of the ISI will likely be western Iraq and the city of Mosul, along with an open season on the Iraqi people. A future with Assad in it is a victory for Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism of almost all creeds, a promised inevitability that cannot be covered up if inaction proves to be the desired course in the halls of international policy.