The Syrian-Jihadi "highway" in Lebanon
World Defense Review columnist
A curious "debate" is growing rapidly among a number of Western-based
analysts about the "impossibility" of the existence of Syrian
Jihadi-Salafist links. More particularly, some analysts went to the
extent of describing the existence of links between the Syrian
Mukhabarat and the group Fatah al Islam operating in North Lebanon as "hazy."
Ironically this mounting trend meets the current Syrian diplomatic and
media campaign halfway, as Damascus is deploying extensive efforts to
deny "any link whatsoever" with Fatah al Islam. In fact, Assad shut down
the passage points in northern Lebanon just a few hours after the
Jihadists began slaughtering the Lebanese soldiers. Interestingly enough
Syria has not closed entry checkpoints to Lebanon since 1976, even
though Tripoli's skies were burning during many battles between militias
Was Assad too fast in denying his backing of Fatah al Islam, as with his
instant denial of his regime's role in the Hariri assassination?
We'll come back to this matter later. But first let me examine the
arguments in the claim stating that Fatah al Islam is al Qaeda, and
therefore it cannot be backed by the Syrian regime.
Intelligence and Counterterrorism experts are familiar with the weapon
known as "intox" from the root word intoxication. It is a form of
deception used by powers throughout history and developed as a special
skill by the Soviet KGB during the Cold war. Later on various Jihadi
networks, both Iranian and Salafist, have improved this method via the
use of Khid'a (deception) and the historically rooted concept of Taqiya
The bottom line is that regimes and organizations, Islamist and
ultra-nationalists (i.e. not sanctioned by domestic checks and balances)
can use all deceptions possible and don't have to be transparent. In the
War on Terror or the Terror War against Democracies, do not expect --
naively -- these radicals to tell you the real story. Hence do not
expect either the Syrian regime to declare that it is supporting Fatah
al Islam at this point, or expect the latter to declare that they are
coordinating with Damascus as they are announcing they have pledged to
al Qaeda. Reading short of this complex reality would only mean that you
have been the victim of "intox," the enemy's Khid'a at its best.
Assad regime's History
To those who cannot fathom how a Baathist secular -- and socialist --
regime engags in alliances with Islamist forces, fights them, befriend
one and represses another, just review the very dense history of Hafez
Assad between 1970 and 2000, and the short but bloody history of his son
Bashar from 2000 until 2007.
For 37 years the Assad dynasty practiced Taqiya and Khid'a as well as
cross-ideological alliances. The regime supported the PLO between 1970
and 1976, before Assad ordered the bloody conflict with Arafat in 1976.
Briefly claiming coordination with Right wing Christian parties in
1976-1977, Assad bombed the PLO in 1978. Then using Amal against the
Palestinians, the regime supported its own "Palestinian" factions.
Allying himself with Iran and Hizbollah in 1982, the regime wanted to
contain Hizbollah in Beirut in 1986. Fighting against the Lebanese
(Christian) Forces since the 1970s, the Syrians backed a faction among
them (Elie Hobeika) in 1986, fought another (Samir Geagea) until 1989,
claimed to befriend the latter for a short time before ordering
oppression of their partisans as of 1993.
Assad fought the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, but funded the Islamists
in Lebanon and Palestine. His regime claimed it was secular while
becoming the single strategic ally of Iran's Islamist elite. In Lebanon
and after the withdrawal of the bulk of his army, Bashar kept his entire
apparatus: from Shia Hizbollah and Amal, some Druse factions, and a few
Christian warlords, to a large range of pro-Sunni politicians and
groupings. How can the Assad intelligence net achieve this?
That is another story about the Baathist sophistication. And as of
spring 2005, a main former anti-Syrian politician was added to the
panoply of Syrian (and Iranian) political assets in the country: General
Michel Aoun. However, perhaps the most advantageous "grabs" by the
Baathist Mukhabarat were Sunni Islamists, who should have been
ideologically on the other side of Assad, but who, with the attraction
of a "deity" -- dollars and power -- have agreed to line up with a
Taghut (unjust ruler in Jihadi literature).
Indeed, as of the early 1990s, Assad, the father, succeeded in
recruiting Islamic (Sunni) Fundamentalists. Obviously the prime
against-nature alliance was with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both Sunni
Islamists. Once that was "accomplished," other models were possible.
Hence, the next wave of Sunni Islamists to be "recruited" by the Syrian
intelligence were precisely those based in Tripoli and Sidon in Lebanon,
for example Harakat al Tawheed of Shaaban and the Gama'a al Islamiya.
And once Syrian intelligence can penetrate that far in Sunni radical
land, it can naturally fund those who will at some point "join" al Qaeda.
Years later, the Assad junta's efforts paid off. While many in the realm
of Western logic cannot absorb it, the fact is that Syrian intelligence
not only has a strategic relationship with Islamic Fundamentalists who
are fighting a same enemy, but also has a control process over some
groups who, while being attracted ideologically to al Qaeda, are
enjoying the checks of the Assad regime. Hence, the odd situation of
Fatah al Islam in their affiliation with the ideology of al Qaeda (contradictive
with the Baath) and their acceptance of Syrian logistical (and binding)
Jihadi tactical history
One has also to have a solid understanding of Jihadi-Salafi tactical
history. This type of movement is indeed very rigid on ideology. Its
attitude towards the so-called Kuffar (infidels) is unshakeable: Jews,
Christians, Hindus, Muslim Shiites and even Sunni "apostates" are ranked
But the Salafi Jihadists have often used their enemies, accepted their
donations and produced all the reasons for this behavior. If Wahabi
Islamists have welcomed strategic assistance from American infidels in
Afghanistan in the 1980s they surely would accept weapons and money from
the region's Baathists. Western "experts" shouldn't have an existential
crisis if the Jihadists divert a little from the books they print. Yes,
even the Salafi Jihadists can be "tactical." In Tripoli's case, not only
Fatah al Islam was encouraged by the Syrian intelligence, but a number
of its leadership were jailed then freed by Damascus .
Stakes for Bashar's regime
Another component of the "unnatural" cooperation between the Syrian
regime and a more than one Jihadi group in Lebanon is the urgency for
Bashar. Hafez Assad used Islamist groups in Lebanon and in Palestine
during the 1980s and the 1990s for very specific reasons: control of the
game with Israel and with the opponents of the Baath in Lebanon.
Bashar's intelligence is using them for a higher stake: to protect the
Syrian regime from collapse by ordering the crumbling of the Lebanese
Government before. It centers on the Hariri UN Court and on the
implementation of UNSCR 1559. Only seasoned readers of Assad politics
can see it as clearly as a grand plan.
The Syrian game plan
It is always beneficial for commentators and analysts to look at
developments involving terrorism, from historical and geopolitical
angles. When Fatah al Islam began the attacks against the Lebanese
soldiers it wasn't because of a bank robbery. The group declared last
November the purpose of enflaming Tripoli, and with it a "northern
front" against the Seniora Government. Reading it otherwise is a short
sight watching of unfolding events.
The road to the battle of Tripoli began in April of 2005, when Bashar
Assad delivered a speech in Damascus in which he declared his intention
to withdraw his army from Lebanon under American, French and
international pressures. A thorough reading at the time told all those
connoisseurs of the Baathist regime that he was planning on pulling out
the "first army" (the regular troops and tanks), but he had instructed
the "second army, " (Hezbollah, the pro-Syrian militias, and the
Terrorists implanted within Palestinian camps) to take the offensive.
From July to December 2005, a number of Cedars Revolution leaders were
savagely assassinated and bombs targeted several areas. From January to
June 2006, while the March 14 (anti-Syrian) politicians were lured into
discussions with Hezbollah, the Syro-Iranians introduced weapons and
terrorists through the Bekaa borders with Syria . By July, Hezbollah
waged a war against Israel. As of October 2006, Nasrallah waged an urban
war against the Seniora Government: A Minister was assassinated and
downtown Beirut was occupied.
From January 2007 until now the Jihadi card has been used. This is the
strategic context in which Fatah al Islam operates today: engaging the
Lebanese Army in several spots, starting with Tripoli. In short, the
Assad regime has no doctrinal ethics as many fooled experts believe in
the West. The Syrian regime would sleep with any enemy and use all
assets to reach its goal.
Bashar's war room can assassinate Lebanese politicians with the agents
of the neo-Nazi SSNP, set off bombs and suppress Shiites intellectuals
with Hezbollah expertise, besiege the Lebanese Church with the help of
Christian feudals such as Soleiman Frangieh, disorient the Maronite
masses with turncoat Michel Aoun, penetrate the Sunni community with "funded"
Salafi Jihadists and thrust into the Druze clan with "paid" operatives.:
And as this Terrorist architecture is set up in Lebanon, another span of
"Assad Labyrinths" lures outside powers into the game.
The Syrian regime, while ally with the Mullahcracy in Tehran, tells the
Americans it could do business with them; and, as Bashar instructs his
operatives overseas to blast the Saudi regime, he flies over to Riyadh
to assure them of his friendship. Hence, a regime that can master such a
diabolical engineering can easily recruit and have remote control over
the little Fatah al Islam and place it in Assad's vast tool-set in
Lebanon and the region.
Fatah al Islam: Opportunistic Jihadi Hybrid
To understand the nature of Fatah al Islam, one has to cross several
layers of distinctions -- first between an "official chapter" of the Bin
Laden organization and the other types. Shaker al Absi's group is not a
chapter, yet. Then one must distinguish between those Jihadist entities
fully independent from regimes and intelligence services and those "implicated"
in some ways.
Fatah al Islam is Salafi Jihadist, regards Bin Laden as an ideological
leader, but also happens to be on the receiving end of Assad's payroll.
In short, not all Jihadi groups are perfect. So, at the end of the day,
the Nahr al Bared based Salafi Terrorists are Jihadi in nature and tied
to Syrian intelligence per needs. They could be seen as "Opportunistic
Hybrid Jihadis." They can adapt to future situation in the future, if
they survive as an organized networks.
Some Terrorism commentators in the West and in the US spoke of an "elusive
Fatah al Islam." Unfamiliar with the Levantine nature of the phenomenon,
those commentators still struggle with what they describe as "speculation"
over the group's "real motives," as if they haven't captured the
equation behind Fatah al Islam. These commentators base their inability
to define the group on classical ethnocentric errors in analysis. First,
they conclude that this group can't have ties to Damascus because the
Syrian regime executed four members of the group. Ironically, the news
came from the Syrian intelligence itself, which means that the Assad
regime can go as far as killing operatives to intimidate the rest of the
group, and on top of it, "sell" the news to the world as an "an anti al
Qaeda" activity, which by the way would be bought by US officials.
It would take a world, and many books to explain the twisted -- but
successful -- mind of the regime in Damascus. "Killing" Islamists at the
hand of the Syrian soldiers is another form of taming wild activities
and raining in. And for those who can't fathom this behavior, just
remember how in 1987, Syrian special forces slaughtered a number of
Hezbollah fighters in Beirut even when Syrian intelligence was
coordinating with Iran. Each blood shed, has a specific reason in this
The analysts who can't absorb the Syrian-Fatah al Islam form of
cooperation often cite statements made by al Qaeda in Iraq's past
commander attacking the Shiites, and hence the Alawite regime. But what
escapes commentators is that theological and ideological principles can
be selectively applied, so that strategic goals can be reached. The "principles"
are never forgotten but the roads to attain them can be full of blind
spots. And just as a reminder, it was Ayman Zawahiri, al Qaeda's number
two, who asked Zarqawi to forget about the Shiia apostates in Iraq until
time opportune comes. So, statements made by a few hot-headed Jihadi
commanders in Iraq won't stop pragmatic Jihadists in Lebanon from
receiving aid from Alawi apostates.
There is something called al Darura that escapes many on-the-spot
analysts as they navigate in the highly intricate world of the Jihadists:
it translates into "necessity." If it is deemed necessary by the Emir of
a group to use the goodies of an infidel party to fight the other
infidel party, it will be selected comfortably. Remember how the Wahabis
of the 1980s used all resources from a far-Infidel power, the United
States, to fight a close infidel enemy, the Soviet Union , and learn
from that example.
Seeing beyond "Intox"
Once more, the unseen tie between the Assad regime and the Terrorist
Jihadi groups is in the center of international and US scrutiny. The
Iraq debate in 2002-2003 fell short of reading the type of "links" that
existed between the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Most
observers missed the actual state of those relationships that existed.
From my reading of 42 pages of Iraqi intelligence (in Arabic) from the
1992-1994 years, I saw clearly how both sides were exploring the
potentials. From my previous observation of Saddam's symbolic
metamorphosis in the 1990s towards a higher use of Islamist symbols I
understood that he wanted to have this dimension at his disposal,
without changing his regime's doctrine deeply.
It was the level of darura again. But in Assad's case, the darura is
high: The regime depends on arming Jihadists (even if they could sting
you later) and sending them off to Iraq , and now to Lebanon.
The Salafi Jihadists are like a dangerous chemical weapon that you'd
want to throw on your foe while knowing it can come back at you. But
guess what? It is more important for the Assad regime to crumble the
Seniora Government now and crush future Salafi backfiring later. The
Syrian intelligence is expert at eliminating their past tools, even if
they were Syrians as well.
What the expert community in the West and in the US must do is to see
beyond the analytical "intoxication" unleashed by the regimes and
organizations in the region, and expanded by their advocates in the
West. Just keep in mind that the Iranian-Syrian axis is spending
millions of dollars on one of the most sophisticated PR campaigns aiming
at blurring the vision of their foes.
If you investigate thoroughly the grapevines, you'd be able to find out
that most of the "arguments" made in our public space about the types of
relationships that "can" exist, and those that "shouldn't," are
manufactured in Tehran and Damascus. Subconsciously or not, many in the
West parrot the claims made by Middle East dictatorships, Jihadi
strategists and al Jazeera commentators, unfortunately weakening
democracies' stand in the War of Ideas.
At the end of the day, as I try to argue in my latest book, the ultimate
strategic goal of the enemies is to force the West to see wrongly and
act accordingly. In the case of Fatah al Islam's battling in Tripoli,
the aim of the Syro-Iranian propagandists is to camouflage what is
obvious for as long and thick as they can: That the Syrian regime not
only has established ties to some Jihadist groups, but has in fact paved
a "highway" in their direction, with the goal of using them as one of
the defense lines for the regime. Hence, it is up to the public and the
policy makers in the West to thrust through the deceptive "intoxication"
tactic by Damascus and Tehran, to see clearer, and only then, to act
— Dr Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense
of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, D.C., and director of the Future
Terrorism Project of the FDD. He is a visiting fellow with the European
Foundation for Democracy in Brussels. His most recent book is Future
Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West.
Dr Phares holds degrees in law and political science from Saint Joseph
University and the Lebanese University in Beirut, a Masters in
international law from the Universite de Lyons in France and a Ph.D. in
international relations and strategic studies from the University of
He has taught and lectured at numerous universities worldwide, practiced
law in Beirut , and served as publisher of Sawt el-Mashreq and Mashrek
International. He has taught Middle East political issues, ethnic and
religious conflict, and comparative politics at Florida Atlantic
University until 2006.
Dr. Phares has written seven books on the Middle East and published
hundreds of articles in newspapers and scholarly publications such as
Global Affairs, Middle East Quarterly, the Journal of South Asian and
Middle East Studies and the Journal of International Security. He has
appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, BBC, al Jazeera,
al Hurra, as well as on radio broadcasts.
Aside from serving on the boards of several national and international
think tanks and human rights associations, Dr. Phares has testified
before the US Senate Subcommittees on the Middle East and South East
Asia, the House Committees on International Relations and Homeland
Security and regularly conducts congressional and State Department
briefings, and he was the author of the memo that introduced UNSCR 1559
Visit Dr. Phares on the web at walidphares.com and defenddemocracy.org.
© 2007 Walid Phares