The suspicion that the West and some of its Arab allies are luring Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists to Syria to get them killed was first voiced with deliberate intent by Bashar Assad’s close ally, Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, on Dec. 18.
“The foreign-backed armed opposition is very, very, very mistaken” if they count on victory, he said before advancing his conspiracy theory. “I warn Al Qaeda: The Americans and the European countries have set a trap for you in Syria, and opened for you a battlefield so you come from across the world… to be killed and to kill each other,” said Hizballah’s leader.
The Lebanese Shiite leader’s interest in stemming the rush of Al Qaeda fighters to the Syrian rebel cause from around the Muslim world is self-evident: Not just Sunni extremists, they are the fiercest and best armed elements of the rebel movement fighting his close friend, Assad, for 22 months.
His words were intended for the ears of the radical Islamist organizations associated with al Qaeda and its leader Ayman Zawahiri in the hope they would be deterred by his warning. He figured that reducing the flow of jihadists to Syria would ease the military pressure on the Syrian army, fighting the insurrection.
But Zawahiri has his own fish to try. His plans were surveyed by the German daily Die Welt in an article published on Dec. 20. It focused on Al Qaeda’s standing in Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt and the fact that the murderers of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens came from Al Qaeda ranks in Egypt (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported soon after the Sept. 11 attack).
According to German intelligence sources, Al-Qaeda’s boss is intent on fashioning new outfits in Syria and Egypt since many established Al Qaeda branches have turned their backs on him and the old guard since the death of Osama Bin Laden.
For the big powers, Syria as an export destination for Islamist radicals
Al Qaeda’s new Syrian branch is Jabat al-Nusrah and its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, is Al-Zawahiri's contact.
Citing Western intelligence sources, Die Welt discloses the following:
1. Some 100 Muslims with European passports are believed to be involved in the war in Syria and are feared to be planning to return to their homes bases in Europe with bad intentions.
2. In a number of large training camps which Al Nusrah has established in Syria, Islamists with fighting experience, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are imparting their “tradecraft” to raw recruits, including volunteers from Western countries.
3. The danger of the Nusrah Front getting its hands on Assad's chemical weapons is a constant worry.
The German BND intelligence agency, which is more solidly established in Syria than any other Western clandestine service, finds substance in Hassan Nasrallah’s allegation that the US, the Europeans and also the Russians and the Chinese, are encouraging Al Qaeda and jihadi activists in their countries to go to Syria. They hope to sap Al Qaeda’s organizational and operational capabilities in their own countries and on global count-terror fronts such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
For Moscow, the benefit would lie in reducing militant Islamist ranks in the restive Caucasus and Chechnya. Britain would hope to export some of the Muslim radicals from its towns, while Beijing sees Syria as a lodestone for drawing troublesome Uighur Muslim Al Qaeda adherents away from China’s Xinjiang region.
Assad is preserved for defeating al Qaeda
While this theory has not aroused much overt interest outside Germany, Arab opinion is getting interested.
Saturday, Dec. 29, the respected London-based Al Hayat newspaper ran a column under the byline of its senior diplomatic correspondent, Raghida Dergham. She is considered to have the best sources of the hundreds of correspondents assigned to the sprawling UN headquarters on First Avenue, New York, including direct access to the office of UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon.
Under the headline “American-Russian Relations and Their Impact on the Arab Transitional Phase,” Dergham wrote the following:
“Yet others believe – and even insist – that what is happening in Syria is premeditated, and resembles what the former U.S. President George W. Bush did when he invited various kinds of jihadists, from al-Qaeda and its sisters, to Iraq. And they came, and he defeated them to keep them away from American cities.”
She goes on to write, “The proponents of this view say that both the U.S. and Russia want to defeat the jihadists decisively, and that this is why they are now in Syria. They add that Bashar al-Assad is the choice of both sides, and will remain in power because he is the only one able to defeat al-Qaeda and its sisters in Syria. Thus the U.S. and Russian leaderships have agreed on Assad staying in power.”
Clearly, therefore, the view held by Nasrallah and the German BND has infiltrated the highest levels of the UN establishment.
Lavrov: Syria’s chemical weapons are safe from terrorists – for now
This perception is also the key to the next stage of the Syrian war.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that it is an open secret in the Western and Arab capitals watching Syria, and also in Moscow and Tehran, that the Syrian conflict entered a plateau, after which it is liable to jump to more lethal weapons, including chemical arms.
But which of these deadly duelers will draw first?
Since Dec, 21 and into the first days of January, a ferocious back-and-forth battle has been raging for control of the Al Safira military-industrial complex, air defense base and the facility which houses Syria’s largest chemical weapons store, as well as Scud D missiles capable of delivering them.
The rebel assault on the facility is spearheaded primarily by Jabat al-Nusrah fighters under the command of Abu Muhammad al-Julani, Zawahiri’s henchman.
On Dec. 22, just one day after al-Nusrah led the rebels into attack, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the Syrian government had “consolidated its chemical weapons in one or two locations amid a rebel onslaught.”
Lavrov added that Russia, which has military advisers training Syria’s military, has kept close watch over its chemical arsenal.
He was informing Washington that the transfer of those Syria’s chemical and biological weapons to “one or two” protected locations was complete and they had therefore been placed out reach of the Jabat al-Nusrah – “for now,” he noted.
Which side will be first to launch chemical warfare?
But he offered no guarantee that chemical weapons would not fall into the hands of this or any other radical Islamic organization, because he and Western intelligence have confirmed that – even without Al-Safira – Syrian rebels have acquired chemical weapons, whether looted from other caches or acquired from Syrian army deserters who fled with them.
Informed intelligence agencies are no longer asking when these poisonous tools of war will enter the battlefield, but which side will be first to unsheathe them and so provide its opposite number with the pretext for following suit.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources also say that Syrian President Bashar Assad and his military chiefs have already warned that the rebels’ resort to chemical warfare will bring forth reprisals in the same coin – and not only against their forces in the country. Assad’s army means to target the facilities in northern Jordan, where rebels, mostly Free Syrian Army-FSA fighters, are being trained by American, Jordanian, Czech, French and Polish special forces instructors in tactics for seizing control of chemical weapons systems and turning them against the enemy.
Many of these Syrian insurgent combatants are standing by on the Jordan-Syria border; some have “disappeared” – i.e., deserted and gone to fight alongside Jabat al-Nusrah.
The unfolding of the Syrian chemical threat – from the time it was first sighted until the present – is logged step by step, in context, in an exclusive DEBKA-Net-Weekly research project which is published here for the first time.