Across the Bay

Friday, June 08, 2007

Asef Shawkat and Fateh al-Islam

I have noted in previous posts, and in my recent piece, the reports about the ties between Syrian intelligence and Fateh al-Islam. More reports are emerging.

One individual who was arrested recently was said to be the liaison between Fateh al-Islam and al-Qaeda on the one hand, and the Syrian intelligence services on the other.

More details have come out on that end. The Kuwaiti al-Ra'i al-'Aam quotes security sources in Lebanon as saying that a Lebanese member of Fateh al-Islam, Muhammad Mer'i, who was arrested, has provided information that his brother Ahmad, the "liaison" who was arrested, was "in direct contact with Gen. Asef Shawkat," Bashar's brother-in-law and head of military intelligence in Syria. He was also in close contact with Shaker al-Absi. Moreover, Ahmad was the main coordinator in charge of transferring fighters through Syria.

Ahmad's role as liaison entailed carrying Shawkat's instructions to Absi and the latter's requests from Shawkat. Ahmad Mer'i himself reportedly confessed to receiving orders from Syrian intelligence, according to An-Nahar.

According to Ahmad's brother, "an important boost was achieved when Ahmad managed, in cooperation with Shawkat's men, to smuggle to northern Lebanon an important explosives expert belonging to al-Qaeda named Abu Ahmad al-Iraqi, who is renowned for his expertise in preparing explosives and training the brothers in using them."

Al-Iraqi, he added, had lived in Jordan, Afghanistan and Iraq, then moved to Syria, and is wanted by the Americans. He is currently in Syria after Ahmad Mer'i managed to smuggle him out of Tripoli. He might have been joined there by a Saudi al-Qaeda member, who is a major financier of the group. (Although, Mer'i adds that there are rumors that the two may have since moved to Iran.)

This seems to dovetail with a report that appeared a few days ago in Asharq al-Awsat (English report here), which said that the mastermind of Fateh al-Islam's bombings has fled to Syria. The report had said the man was Lebanese, but apparently, if al-Ra'i al-'Aam's report is accurate, he is Iraqi. His liaison was Lebanese.

I repeat what I wrote in my piece:

Jihadist groups are not "using" Syria as a transit route, as he writes. Rather, Syria is inviting them to pass through in pursuit of its own interests in Lebanon and Iraq. Those interests include defeating the US in Iraq and re-dominating Lebanon, where Syria could sell itself as the only guarantor of stability. The Syrians will dangle jihadists as bait for the US, even as they will use them to hurt America and its allies. This calls for a serious reevaluation of the kind of counterterrorism cooperation that Issa envisions, especially after the Security Council last week formed an international tribunal to look into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

It's time to dispense with the myth that it's not in Syria's interests to support jihadists in Iraq or Lebanon. In fact, Syria's sole foreign policy asset - the only reason why people want to talk to Syria - is its ability to destabilize countries around it, hence inviting bargaining. It's a strategy designed and perfected precisely to induce the kind of proposal put forth by Issa. Engagement most often does not dissuade the Syrians; it encourages them. You'd think we would have learned the lesson by now.

I also recall Michael Young's recent comment on the same subject: "When Syria is systematically exporting instability throughout the region, you have to wonder whether its regime can be a credible partner to the U.S."

That, of course, is an understatement. Syria is an enemy of the US and a state sponsor of terrorism, including al-Qaeda types. Period.

Addendum: Arabic readers might want to read this dispatch by Abdel Karim Abul Nasr in An-Nahar today. It's on Syria's ties to Jihadists. I'll try to translate interesting excerpts for non-Arabic readers later.

Update: Abu Kais has more on this story. I think the following graph merits highlighting:

The above report reveals the alliance of interests struck between the Assad regime and al-Qaeda. The regime might not have full control over the Islamists once they're engaged in their jihad, but it provides them with logistical support and creates battlegrounds for them.

Compare this graph to the Abul Nasr report linked above.