Across the Bay

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Syrian Jails and Jihadis

An-Nahar ran a two-part investigative report entitled "Have Syrian jails become 'a land of support' for Jihad in Iraq and Lebanon?" It was translated by NOW Lebanon (part 1, part 2). I urge you to read it.

This is directly related to an issue I have been highlighting on this blog: the Syrian regime's collusion with Jihadis, as in the case of Abu Qa'qa', to give but one example.

I have also mentioned Fathi Yakan, along with my suspicions about his role in the Fateh al-Islam case. A propos Fateh al-Islam, we also noted Shaker al-Absi's stint in Syrian jails before being released, um, rather early, and sent to Lebanon to create Fateh al-Islam.

Yakan, an open Zawahiri supporter, is a particularly relevant case because he too was at one point kidnapped and imprisoned by the Syrians, and he's now one of their Jihadi Islamist tools and is regularly feted in Damascus, and has been received personally by Bashar Assad.

As I have described before, the Syrian regime has a serious "Sunni problem" in Lebanon, and so they have tried to puff a marginal figure like Yakan, only highlighting their bankruptcy. Yakan was also Hezbollah's Sunni fig leaf in their siege rally in downtown Beirut. The Iranians also received Yakan in March, which led the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (and Yakan was the Syrian regime's interlocutor of choice whenever it wanted to send messages to the Brotherhood) to dub him "Hojatoleslam Fathi Yakan."

And so, very clearly, Yakan was a Sunni Islamist tool for the Iranian-Syrian axis. As such, he earned at the time a two-part profile on the arm of the Qatari government (which is supporting the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis in Lebanon and Gaza) al-Jazeera.

Among the telling -- albeit absolutely hilarious -- things he described was a meeting with Hafez Assad and said that he told Assad that Yakan's dream would be for Syria to be ruled by the Arab Islamic Baath party. (An interesting note given Bashar Assad's Islamification campaign and the adoption of the ideology that I and others have dubbed "Pan-Arabist Islamism." For his part, Barry Rubin described Syria as: "formulating the new 'resistance' strategy which combines radical Arab nationalism and Islamism; being Iran's main Arab ally; and even being the main Arab state sponsor of revolutionary Islamism. ... merging Arab nationalism and Islamism, is very much in line with Syria's current political doctrine.")

Yakan was formerly in the Jama'a Islamiya, but had a falling out and quit. Then in August 2006 (the timing is important and tied to Syria), he formed the Islamic Action Front, an umbrella organization that includes other Islamist tools of Syria like Bilal Sha'ban and Hashem Minqara.

Minqara shares with Yakan the experience of imprisonment in Syria before "miraculously" turning and becoming a Syrian tool, which is the subject matter of the an-Nahar investigative report linked above.

Hashem Minqara, a militant Sunni Islamist from the northern city of Tripoli, spent 14 years in Syrian prisons before returning to Lebanon in 2000 and starting a new career as a pro-Syrian tool.

He was profiled by Gary Gambill in the MEIB in 2000, upon his release.

The story of his release is of particular interest:

After his return to Lebanon, Minqara told a local newspaper that his release was negotiated by Lebanese Minister of Transportation Najib Miqati, a Sunni politician from Tripoli who has close business ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad and is said to be under consideration in Damascus as the next prime minister of Lebanon.3 Lebanese political analysts have speculated that Minqara's release was designed to bolster local support for Miqati and his allies in the August 27 parliamentary elections.
Bilal Shaaban, the current secretary-general of Al-Tawhid al-Islami, suggested that a deal had been reached to secure the release of other members of the group held by Syria. "The release of all our imprisoned brothers should come in the next few days."5 Another one of the group's military commanders, Samir al-Hassan, was released earlier this month.

As I mentioned above, Shaaban and Minqara are now Yakan's associates and fellow Syrian allies in the IAF.

Interestingly, the deal came under Bashar Assad in 2000. Bashar had worked hard to undermine the political class in Lebanon, especially Hariri (and in the end he murdered him). In 2000, he negotiated the return of another minor Sunni Nasserist pitbull, Kamal Shatila, as part of his campaign against Hariri (Shatila had been expelled from Lebanon in 1984 by Hafez Assad). Shatila today is part of the B-Team of Bashar's losers (Naser Qandil, Wi'am Wahhab, et al.) and he too has his appearances on al-Jazeera denouncing March 14 and especially (this is his role) the March 14 Sunnis and Hariri's Future Movement.

Just as Bernard Rougier documented Iran's working with Palestinian Sunni Islamists in his book, a study waits to be done on Syria's collusion with Jihadi Islamists, especially in the Bashar years.

Addendum: See this 1999 article by Eyal Zisser, "Hafiz al-Assad Discovers Islam": "Damascus started to see the Islamists as perhaps the only possible means by which to enhance its regional standing, gain influence in neighboring countries and bring domestic tranquility to Syria itself. ... Close relations since 1980 between Damascus and Tehran, it bears noting, helped strengthen these ties."