In one of the Middle East’s weirder twists, Iraq is being held up as a model by a Syrian opposition-in-exile alliance as a surefire device for regime change in Damascus.
Encouraged by the US Central Intelligence Agency and the British MI6 secret service, the heads of this alliance held a secret convocation in London in the first week of June to start gearing up for action.
Seated at the top table were former vice president Khalim Haddam and Muslim Brotherhood leader Sadr e-Din Bayanuni.
The leaders of 24 dissident groups were gathered around them.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources report that the most powerful figure of them all, the president’s uncle Rifat Assad, was conspicuous by his absence. He stayed away to signal his extreme displeasure with the exiled alliance leaders’ swing towards broadening their campaign against the Bashar Assad regime by marginalizing the minority Allawite Muslim sect to which the Assad clan belongs and relegating it to a status resembling that of Iraq’s Sunni Muslims.
Some Persian Gulf intelligence sources report that Rifat, hitherto a staunch adherent of the campaign to overthrow his nephew, was so put out that he paid a discreet visit to Damascus this month to try and bury the hatchet with Bashar.
The sources do not know how the reconciliation bid turned out – the feud dividing the Assad family dates back to the era of Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad. Rifat is believed to have confided to the president his conviction that the opposition alliance would not have targeted Allawite domination of Syria without tacit support from Washington, London and Paris. He therefore urged the sect’s divided factions to close ranks and together face the common enemies threatening longstanding Allawite rule of Syria.
Charting a civilian revolt
None of this is absolutely verified by independent sources, however certain developments are beginning to emerge:
1. The feuding wings of the Allawite Assads are in touch after decades of animosity.
2. Neither Rifat Assad nor any representative of his attended the London conclave of Syrian opposition leaders in exile.
3. He was not misled; the London gathering did indeed pass a resolution to fight Allawite rule in Syria.
4. The method its members projected is based on Iraq’s federal concept as embodied in the new national unity government in Baghdad. Turning Syria’s entire state system inside out, the country would be partitioned into broadly autonomous Sunni, Kurdish and Druze provinces. The small Allawite sect would be left nowhere in the federal set-up and the Assad dynasty toppled from its high perch in Damascus.
The opposition leaders have an incremental plan of action ready to go in the coming weeks:
First: To call on American, British and French intelligence services for help in fomenting a civil unrest in Syria – nothing too violence in the first stage, so as not to bring out the Syrian security forces, the police and the army, but rather to try and draw them into sympathizing with the protest movement.
Second: To avoid targeting the ruling Baath party and its military and intelligence wings. The object is to convince them that they are the victims of the regime, rather than its mainstay. This will pave the way to the main thrust of the revolt: a back-doors appeal to the military top brass not to rush to obey orders from the presidential palace in Damascus to crush the uprising. The Syrian dissidents have done their homework on Iraq. They learned that the American decision to boycott Saddam Hussein’s Baathists and blacklist the top army and secret service officers was the most powerful goad to Sunni and Baathist elements to stage their insurgency.
Third: To reverse a former decision taken in Brussels to set up a government in exile. Instead, a national council will conduct the struggle to overturn the Assad regime and remove the Allawites from their positions of power in Damascus.
Faking an al Qaeda attack to bolster the regime
In early June, the Syrian authorities claimed to have beaten off a radical Islamic attack on government buildings, including the ministry of defense, in central Damascus near Syria’s national radio and television headquarters. The assailants were said to have used grenades and lost four men, while two Syrian guards were killed. Six fighters were reportedly arrested after a three-hour battle.
No group ever claimed responsibility for this operation. Later, it transpired that the assailants were Syrians, former Sufis who came around to the fundamentalist view, implying that the Syrians were keeping more information under their hats than they were giving out.
Regarding the air of mystery surrounding the event, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources affirm that the Syrians faked the attack. This was discovered in a comprehensive investigation carried out by international security agencies specializing in the war on al Qaeda. There were no group of radical Muslims, no arrests and no one killed. All that happened was that Syrian soldiers were told to stage a mock battle in the hope of presenting the Assad government as being hounded by al Qaeda and drawing some sympathy in the Arab arena and the West.
But the stunt also had an underlying element of fact.
Syrian intelligence was informed in mid-May that the commander of Syrian fighters in Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s ranks in Iraq – “Abu Qaqaa,” whose real name is Muhammed Agasi, a 33-year old Syrian Kurd from a village north of Aleppo – had ordered his men to return to Syria and prepare to start attacking key government targets.
Since then, members of the Syrian Jund al-Sham unit, are filtering back into the country. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraqi terror experts expect that Zarqawi’s death on June 7 will accelerate the exit of Syrian al Qaeda fighters from Iraq.
Syrian intelligence and Western al Qaeda watchers are curious to see whether Abu Qaqaa, sighted lately in Falluja, decides to leave Iraq in the wake of his men and transfer his operations center to Syria, or stay behind to seize command of some of Zarqawi’s units..
Unlike most other al Qaeda chiefs in Iraq, who jealously preserve their secret identities, Agasi is one of the few whose reputation is well known to Syrian and Western intelligence agencies.
After the 9/11 attacks in the United States, he was taken into custody in Damascus, but set free four days later. In early 2002, he opened a small business in Damascus as a sort of impresario for public events. He built up a reputation as a sought-after speaker at weddings and public gatherings.
Assad may be facing a genuine al Qaeda offensive
His small office was soon discovered to be a front for recruiting volunteers to al Qaeda. His public appearances were used to sell tapes and seditious video recordings. After a musical introduction, they featured speeches that he had made slamming America and its domination of the Middle East, and reviling “the foreigners presence in Syria.”
This was a transparent reference to the Allawites and the Assad family. “The regime in Damascus,” he would tell his audience, “doesn’t belong to the country, but to the Muslim faith” – meaning the government of any given geographic area is only legitimate if it adheres to the true faith, Islam.
This popular public speaker was later discovered to have gone from platform to platform across Syria, building a nationwide network of thousands of followers – 4,000, according to one estimate – which grew into al Qaeda’s infrastructure in Syria.
When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, Agasi transferred his fighting men first to the Ansar al-Islam, the precursor of the contemporary Ansar al-Sunna; then, in 2002, to Zarqawi who had meanwhile arrived in Iraq.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources, this Syrian Kurd’s record hints at ambivalence in his relations with Syrian security services.
On the one hand, Syrian intelligence took a fee to help him introduce foreign fighters and arms from Syria into Iraq to fight the Americans. On the other, he was detained from time to time, on suspicion of subversion against the Assad regime.
In 2003, al Qaeda Web sites and publications accused Abu Qaqaa of acting as a double agent and working for both Syria and Western intelligence. Jihadis were warned to stay away form him. Western intelligence has since concluded that this was a deliberate al Qaeda whitewash to allow its operative o carry on working in Syria without undue harassment.
In early 2004, Aqasi moved to Iraq and joined Zarqawi’s high command.
Should he decide now to return to Syria, as some al Qaeda circles predict, the Assad regime will have a good deal to worry about. A genuine al Qaeda campaign may be brewing – no fakes this time – at the very time that all President Bashar Assad’s enemies appear to be ganging up for a mass return to the homeland for a clandestine revolt to topple him.