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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Exclusive: The spy who fooled the Assad regime

Unknown to regime forces, one of their own had joined the effort to overthrow the Assad dynasty, The National's Suha Maayeh and Phil Sands reveal.
Rebel fighters of the southern front of the Free Syrian Army take positions as one of them aims his weapon at the front line in the north-west countryside of Deraa on March 3, 2015. Reuters
Rebel fighters of the southern front of the Free Syrian Army take positions as one of them aims his weapon at the front line in the north-west countryside of Deraa on March 3, 2015. Reuters

AMMAN // In a highly successful double-cross, a senior army officer from the Assad regime secretly gave Western-backed rebels vital intelligence that led to critical losses for government forces in southern Syria.

The defeat at Tal Al Harra, an electronic warfare station 50 kilometres south of Damascus, sent president Bashar Al Assad’s mukhabarat, or secret police, on a hunt for the source of the leaks and resulted in the killing of dozens of military personnel wrongly accused of treason.

The fog of conspiracy unleashed by the secret defection of General Mahmoud Abu Araj also helped spread discord between regime forces and their Iranian allies – and may have inadvertently played a role in the undoing of one of the Middle East’s most infamous intelligence chiefs, Syria’s Rustom Ghazalah.

Rebels overran the strategic military installation at Tal Al Harra on October 5, pushing troops loyal to Mr Al Assad out of their mountain vantage point, from where they had tracked rebel movements and shelled the surrounding countryside.

Tal Al Harra was where regime forces, and their allies from Iran and Hizbollah, intercepted Israeli communications and kept watch on Syria’s border with Israel, just 12km to the west.

A swift rebel victory there was improbable: regime forces held the only high ground for miles, the army’s 7th Division was on hand and well dug-in, and they enjoyed uncontested air superiority.

A visual guide to the battle for Tal Al Harra

All of that should have been enough to hold off a lightly armed opposition that had to fight its way up steep, exposed slopes with no air cover.

But, unknown to regime forces, one of their own had joined the effort to overthrow the Assad dynasty, which had begun as peaceful protests in nearby Deraa in March 2011.

Rather than fleeing to join the rebels, Abu Araj took the huge risk of working from within to undermine regime defences, according to rebel accounts of the defection that give a rare glimpse inside the murky spy war raging on the southern front.

The general, who commanded the 7th Division’s 121st Mechanised Brigade, contacted the rebels months before the assault on Tal Al Harra, somehow evading Mr Assad’s notoriously effective secret police – the brutal enforcers who have enabled the Assads to rule Syria for almost five decades.

As rebels planned the attack, Abu Araj smuggled out detailed plans of defensive positions, force strength, military orders, code words and information about Iranian military reinforcements from his headquarters in the town of Kanakar, 25km from Tal Al Harra.

“Gen Mahmoud supplied us with so much information, he was instrumental in our victory at Tal Al Harra,” said a rebel commander involved in intelligence operations on the southern front. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Defectors have played a major role in Syria’s civil war, with tens of thousands of soldiers deserting Mr Al Assad’s military. Iran, Hizbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias stepped in to bolster the crumbling army, fuelling a dangerously sectarian proxy conflict in which more than 220,000 people have been killed.

Abu Araj went so far as to deploy his troops in ways that made it easier for the rebels to defeat them, said the commander, who is himself a defector and part of the opposition alliance backed by the West and Gulf states, still sometimes colloquially known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

“He was smart, he used to send the regime’s forces where they can be easily targeted by the FSA, and he gave orders for soldiers to retreat at just the right time for us,” the rebel commander said.

Regime intelligence agents, suspecting an insider was working against them, began to close in.

To evade capture, and to cast suspicion elsewhere, Abu Araj and the rebels he was working with staged a fake ambush when he was travelling near Sanamayn, 18km east of Tal Al Harra.

A rebel faction went so far as to boast on Facebook that it had killed the general in combat, posting a copy of his ID card as proof.

In fact, Abu Araj had crossed safely into Jordan on October 15.

Exactly what happened on the regime side after that remains unclear, but rebel commanders say there was an unprecedented rise in executions in the months after Abu Araj’s escape, with loyalist officers accused of treason and killed.

“We believe as many as 56 of its own officers were accused of treason in the months after Tal Al Harra, and executed, not all at once, but over time,” said the rebel commander, citing testimony of captured regime soldiers and intercepted communications.

Rebels involved in southern front operations say regime forces may have suspected at some stage that Abu Araj had defected, but later believed they were mistaken and that he had been captured by rebels, interrogated and killed.

Adding to the confusion, a month after he arrived in Jordan, Abu Araj, only just falsely reported dead, actually did die. The 52-year-old had apparently been suffering from a terminal heart defect – it is not clear when his health began to deteriorate but he returned to Syria just before he died of natural causes.

The loss of Tal Al Harra was a significant blow to Mr Al Assad’s forces, which had been steadily losing ground in the south and continued to do so in November and December last year.

Alarm over those defeats appear to have triggered Iran’s decision that General Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds force, would take direct control of operations on the southern front.

That happened in January with an influx of thousands of Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, and the start of a new counter offensive, aimed in part at retaking Tal Al Harra. Heavy fighting is ongoing in the southern area.

There have been indications that this Iranian takeover was not popular with all regime officers, especially those who consider themselves proud nationalists and were angered at being given a subservient role in their own country.

According to a Syrian source in Lebanon who is well connected to political security circles in Damascus, Rustom Ghazalah, the Assad regime’s political security chief, was among those who objected to being told to take orders from an Iranian.

“We’ve heard things that made it seem the situation was tense inside political security over this, that Ghazalah was angry and saying that he would only take orders from Assad, no one else,” the source said.

Mr Ghazalah was appointed head of political security in 2012.

He had previously dominated Lebanon as Syria’s top mukhabarat officer there from 2002 to 2005, after which he was investigated by the UN-backed tribunal into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Tribunal prosecutors have not made a formal link between Mr Ghazalah and the February 14, 2005, car bomb that killed Hariri and 21 other people.

Originally from Deraa province, Mr Ghazalah, 62, had been involved in managing the recent fight against rebels in the south, a fight that, after the fall of Tal Al Harra, the regime seemed to be losing.

In December, as rebels continued to advance, Mr Ghazalah’s palace, in his hometown of Qurfa 20km north of Deraa, was reportedly blown up. Footage uploaded to YouTube showed his mansion engulfed in flames after a huge explosion. Before the blast, the footage showed men rigging up gas canisters and cans of fuel in the property. They claimed to be from The National Resistance Movement, a secretive pro-regime organisation.

At the time, it was widely believed that Mr Ghazalah had ordered it razed to prevent it from falling into rebel hands. But Qurfa didn’t fall.

Then, in February – a month after Iran assumed command on the southern front and began to counter-attack rebels – a Syrian opposition journalist claimed Mr Ghazalah had been sacked as head of political security.

Following that, rumours circulated that he had actually been wounded, perhaps in a rebel attack. This was confirmed to pan-Arabic newspaper Alsharq Alawsat BY Assem Qanso, a member of Lebanon’s Baath party, which backs Mr Al Assad.

Mr Qanso said he had visited Mr Ghazalah in hospital, where he was being treated for shrapnel wounds sustained in fighting rebels in Deraa. He denied Mr Ghazalah had been removed as head of political security.

Al Jazeera also reported on the speculation over Mr Ghazalah, citing various theories – that he had been earmarked for assassination by an Iranian hit squad after planning to carry out a coup against Mr Al Assad, or that he knew too many regime secrets and was therefore dangerous.

In a further twist, on March 8, the pro-opposition Sham News Network carried a story that Mr Ghazalah had been detained by the regime’s military intelligence, stripped of his weapon, tortured and then dumped at a Damascus hospital.

MTV Lebanon countered the same day with a report that the office manager of the Syrian military intelligence chief, Major General Rafik Shehadeh, was suspended following a dispute with Mr Ghazalah. Other unconfirmed reports suggested Maj Gen Shehadeh assaulted Mr Ghazalah during an angry confrontation, beating him severely enough to hospitalise him for more than a week.

“We have heard all kinds of conspiracy theories about Rustom Ghazalah, that he was wounded by rebels or that he was tortured because he had disagreements with the Iranians,” said the source in Lebanon with connections to Syrian political security.

“Other people are saying his house was burnt down because the Iranians wanted to search it and he refused to let them. In Syria, it is difficult to know the truth, maybe none of it is true or maybe all of it, we will probably never know.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae