President George W. Bush knew all about the activities of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s henchmen in running the main Al Qaeda pipeline funneling manpower, money and arms into Iraq to fight US forces in the years 2003 to 2007. He was also mindful of the huge profits in revenue and power the Assad clan was accruing from those activities.
(More about this in a separate article in this issue.)
The Iraqi war’s US casualty count came to 4,488 servicemen and at least 3,400 contractors. It could end up costing the US $2.2 trillion in treasure. The war also left 134,000 Iraqi civilians dead.
There is little doubt that many US and Iraqi lives would have been saved – as well as a king’s ransom in dollars – had the US pursued a tough military, diplomatic and intelligence effort for forcing the Syrian government to sever this pipeline and shut down al Qaeda’s training camps, sources of revenue and arms supplies.
During those critical years, US Secretaries of State and National Security Advisers were in and out of Damascus, pestering President Assad in private conversations to withhold or at least restrict al Qaeda’s freedom to use Syria as its logistical base. They got nowhere. All they heard from the Syrian ruler was this dodgy question: How do you expect me to tell whether a passenger arriving in Damascus or Aleppo from the Persian Gulf or Asia is an Al Qaeda fighter or not?
Assad brazenly asks for intelligence-sharing with US
They all knew he was being disingenuous. After all, al Qaeda handed over to Assad’s kinsmen a set fee for every incoming al Qaeda fighter landing in Syria. They knew exactly how many were transferred to Iraq from data collected by their intelligence about the stipends allotted to the fighters’ families and the length of their stay in training camps before being pushed to the Iraqi front lines.
For each of these stages, Assad clansmen collected a fee.
Assad himself was brazen enough to ask his American interlocutors to share with him any information their intelligence services obtained on this question and promised to personally deal with the terrorists abusing his territory.
Needless to say, the US administration never passed on to Damascus any such intelligence. Clearly, Assad would have “dealt” with the terrorists by selling al Qaeda the US data at top prices, while both used it to uncover the extent of US clandestine penetration of the Islamist network in Syria.
In those years, US and Syrian spy chiefs talked secretly. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that in one such conversation, Gen. Ali Mamlouk, a staunch Assad loyalist, asked his American opposite number for a detailed list of proposed targets for the Syrian President to single out with a view to severing the links between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda in Syria.
Washington never presented this list and Al Qaeda’s situation in Syria remained fairly static until the outbreak of the current revolt against Assad in March 2011.
Al Qaeda cells in Syria turn around to strike Assad regime
It was then that the clandestine al Qaeda cells in Syria, which had until then had been dedicated to the organization’s campaign of terror in Iraq, turned around and launched operations on home ground against their host, the Assad regime, under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra.
On Tuesday, April 8, Al Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi admitted in a recorded audio message that the name Jabhat al-Nusra was just a cover for a unified terrorist organization operating for years in Iraq and Syria -“The Country of the Two Rivers and the Levant.”
This audio came shortly after Al Qaeda’s supreme leader Ayman al-Zawahiri published a videotaped message Sunday, April 7, calling for a united jihad in Syria.
This was no coincidence – rather, it demonstrated the overarching relevance of Al Qaeda's central command, in contrast to the official US-Western line, which maintains that the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011 disabled Al Qaeda’s core supreme command.
It turns out that Al Qaeda still has a fully-functioning central command which actively orchestrates its campaigns of terror and expansion in Africa, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, Syria, Iraq and the Sinai Peninsula.
From the viewpoint of US and Western counterterrorism, the Zawahiri message offered four unwelcome pieces of news:
Iraqi-Syrian al Qaeda prepares to redraw ME borders
1. It informs America and also Russia and China that their focus on the Syrian revolt and Bashar Assad’s fate misdirects their attention from the real power pulling the strings of Syria’s future – Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. This was the real force currently redrawing Middle East borders.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources say that, according to the guiding principles the late Osama bin Laden laid down for Al Qaeda, Islamic resistance to the West was born in the 20th century with the signing of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement – the Asia Minor Accord.
This secret agreement carved the Middle East into spheres of influence between Great Britain and France, with Russian concurrence, should the Triple Entente defeated the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Its terms were negotiated by the French diplomat François Georges-Picot and British Sir Mark Sykes. The Russian Tsarist government was a minor party to the accord.
The merger of the two al Qaeda branches of Iraq and Syria is designed to erase the last vestiges of the colonial spheres of influence by overlaying the Syrian-Iraqi frontier with new borders to mark out a modern Caliphate, a Sharia state stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and commanding the region’s oil and gas riches.
2. The Zawahiri message marks the rise of another al Qaeda fighting franchise, to join al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamist forces gathering in Sinai. Both are directly pointed at key American strategic partners in the region, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Islamist fighters returning from Syria are ticking bombs in the West
3. It throws out of whack President Barack Obama’s plans for making do with a pared-down military presence in the Middle East after US troops are pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The unified terrorist fighting force rising in and branching out of Iraq and Syria not only sets loose a powerful destabilizing element on the region, it may set its sights on major cities in Europe and the US and pose a threat to their security comparable to Iranian or North Korean missiles.
4. In the first two years of the Syrian civil war, Jabhat al-Nusra was a magnet for thousands of Islamist volunteers who joined its ranks from Western and Arab countries. They poured in from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon, Australia, Chechnya, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Azerbaijan, France, Iraq and Spain. Britain alone produced a large contingent of 150 dedicated jihadis – and more are on the way.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that after long stints on the front lines, some of these foreign volunteers are starting to return home, whether due to injuries or family pressures.
Such returnees are ticking bombs, ready to carry their jihad into a new operational phase on their home turf. As al Qaeda operatives, they were well trained in the most up-to-date methods of urban guerrilla warfare and multiple terrorist bombing tactics and were well seasoned and toughened on the battlefields of Damascus and Aleppo.