The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has helped bolster al-Qaeda in Syria by releasing extremists from prison and buying oil from Qaeda fighters, The Telegraph reports.
The investigation — which cites Western intelligence agencies, rebels and al-Qaeda defectors — corroborates claims that Assad created a self-fulfilling prophecy of combatting terrorism to justify his brutal actions and ensure his survival.
“The regime is paying [al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat] al-Nusra to protect oil and gas pipelines under al-Nusra’s control in the north and east of the country, and is also allowing the transport of oil to regime-held areas,” an intelligence source told The Telegraph. “We are also now starting to see evidence of oil and gas facilities under [Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)] control.”
Analysts have already identified several former jihadi prisoners, released early on in the revolution, who are now leading rebel groups including al-Nusra and as well as hardline group Ahrar al-Sham.
“The regime claims that it released the prisoners because Assad had shortened their sentences as part of a general amnesty. But it seems to have gone beyond that,” Researcher and journalist Aron Lund told The Telegraph. “There are no random acts of kindness from this regime.”
Furthermore, Al Arabiya reports that ISIS members who were recently captured by other rebels hands detailed that the group’s alleged ties with Assad’s government.
“Abu Anas [an al-Qaeda brigade in the province of Raqqa] is financed directly by the regime, through Iran and Iraq,” an al-Qaeda-linked detainee told al-Arabiya. “His brigade is specialised in kidnappings, car bombs, and targeted assassinations of FSA members.”
Rebels recently seized passports and documents of ISIS members that suggest links to Russia and Iran, but the claims have not been corroborated.
“We were confident that the regime would not bomb us,” one ISIS defector told The Telegraph. “We always slept soundly in our bases.”
In July, Michael D. Weiss reported that former regime officials have also corroborated claims of the regime’s links to al-Qaeda militants. He quoted Affaq Ahmad, the former right-hand man of Syria Air Force intelligence chief General Jamil Hasad, who defected in 2011:
“Actually, the [infiltrated] jihadist groups and brigades were very useful for the regime because they provided a justification for the regime’s insistence on a military solution, and provided some legitimacy under the cover of the War on Terror.”
The latest reports of the regime funding al-Qaeda comes right after a team of war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts accused the Assad government of a “systematic torture and killing” program in state prisons.
All in all, this puts the U.S. in another awkward position. Initially, the Obama administration said “Assad must go” but did not substantially support the opposition. After the regime gassed a Damascus suburb in August, the U.S. struck a chemical weapons deal that re-legitimized Assad.
Now, as John Kerry calls ISIS “the most dangerous players” in the region and European spies reach out to Assad’s government, more evidence emerges that Assad inflamed the country’s al-Qaeda problem to serve himself.
“Assad’s vow to strike terrorism with an iron fist is nothing more than bare-faced hypocrisy,” an intelligence source told The Telegraph. “At the same time as peddling a triumphant narrative about the fight against terrorism, his regime has made deals to serve its own interests and ensure its survival.”
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