Syrian youths radicalised during the Iraq war have joined the rebel side in Syria's civil war, presenting an unlikely benefit for Bashar Al Assad.
Radicals are Assad’s best friends
After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, it seemed that Syria was the US military’s next target. Bashar Al Assad was quoted as saying: “Bush thinks the war in Iraq has ended, but we believe it has just started.” In a most striking development soon after, Syrians were surprised to see Sheikh Ahmed Kaftaro, Syria’s 92-year-old mufti, issue a religious edict calling Syrians to fight in Iraq and sanction suicide operations against the Americans and their allies.
Those who knew Sheikh Kaftaro know that he was a man of peace who couldn’t have made such a fatwa out of his own free will. It was obvious that the plan was to persuade as many young men as possible of joining the fight in Iraq. Today, the fruits of that effort can still be felt in the context of the Syrian uprising.
Busloads of Syrians made the journey from Damascus International Exhibition across the Iraqi border in coordination with military intelligence and the Embassy of Iraq in Damascus, which was still pro-Saddam. In Aleppo, too, people were similarly mobilised to join the fight in Iraq, heading out from Al Sakhur Mosque.
That phenomenon was best exemplified by Sheikh Abu Al Qaaqaa Qul Agassi. He galvanised Aleppo’s young men with his fiery speeches. His rhetoric soon evolved into action, as he started holding warfare training at the mosque.
I got to speak at length to Abu Al Qaaqaa later about his role in supporting the Iraqi conflict against Americans. His accounts matched the story told to me by Major General Dib Zaitoun, the current general intelligence chief. The Assad regime denies its involvement, but Gen Zaitoun later spoke of it as one of the Syrian security’s shining successes. He told me that he had facilitated Abu Al Qaaqaa’s trip to fight in Afghanistan.
Abu Al Qaaqaa’s leadership skills did not match his eloquence and oratory prowess. His recruits were betrayed and returned to Syria as dead bodies. Syrians were said to have been thrown into open battles and those among them who managed to survive had but one of two options: engage in a losing fight in Iraq or to return to Syria, where the Syrian security apparatus would put them in torture chambers – their resentment that was directed at the Americans grew to engulf everything and everyone.
It is my personal belief that Abu Al Qaaqaa himself was under surveillance. His lists of fighters were handed to security services. The man was contributing to the stability of the regime in Syria by sending jihadi fighters from Syria and setting them up for their incarceration in Syrian prisons once they came back. He paid for that with his own blood when he was assassinated at the door of his mosque.
Within three years, Sednaya prison, north of Damascus, was filled with men returning from Iraq. It became a mine for jihadist movements. I was of the opinion that this issue was a threat to national security and that these men should be reintegrated into society. Towards the end of 2008, the national security bureau responded to a request I had filed about starting a dialogue with extremist prisoners that aimed to release them once they proved they had forsaken violence. I was allowed into Sednaya prison where a series of ambitious anti-violence programmes were set up. Although all those I met in prison admitted to the error of their beliefs, it would have been sheer naivete to imagine that they meant that. They knew they were in a Syrian prison.
The programme went on for nearly a year. A number of well-known clerics took part in it. During the programme in 2008, I was called to speak with prisoners. I could not go because I was travelling, but I was surprised to learn that on that day a violent rebellion erupted in Sednaya prison. The prison warden along with a number of staff were held hostage by prisoners and there were many casualties among prison officers and inmates. The news that leaked from the prison was appalling. The prisoners’ rebellion was violent and bloody. Although the prison was entirely cordoned off by the infamous 4th Armoured Division and the Republican Guard, the revolt continued for several months.
Two months later, I met Lt Gen Ali Habib, then chief of staff, who told me the rebellion was still ongoing. We do not know precisely how the prison rebellion ended, but what is certain is that more than one massacre occurred and inmates had lost any hope of salvation after the death of many of their fellow prisoners. It seemed clear they would be kept there for decades, as Hafez Al Assad had done to the first group of rebels in the 1980s. (This was particularly true after the outbreak of the first demonstrations after the tsunami of the Arab uprisings in 2011 in the country.) But that is not what happened. Early in the revolution, on May 31, 2011, a general pardon was issued by Mr Al Assad, much to the surprise of all those prisoners who found themselves released unconditionally.
Those polarised militants joined the armed rebellion against the regime. Although there is no evidence that it was part of the regime’s plan, it is certain that the authorities knew it would happen. I did not know people like Zahran Aloush, Hassan Abboud, Ahmad Issa Al Sheikh, Abu Mohammed Al Joulani and Abu Huzaifa Al Daeshi – now leaders of Syria’s major rebel groups – but I was told that they were among those we talked to in the prison.
During the ongoing uprising, the regime has successfully used such figures to its advantage – again. Mr Al Assad has been happy with the stances of Russia and China that opposed any international action against him at the UN Security Council. But his greatest triumph came after the rise of extremist groups, when Mr Al Assad seems to have persuaded the world that he is the least worst option. Syria’s permanent representative to the UN, Bashar Al Jaafari, summed it up in one sentence: “Gentlemen, we are fighting on behalf of the world.”
Dr Mohammed Habash, a religious scholar, is a former member of the Syrian parliament