Since the start of the uprising in Syria there has been great concern about al Qaeda in Iraq infiltrating the Syrian opposition groups to unseat the Syrian government. Though not considered present in large numbers, it is one reason cited by U.S. officials for resistance to arming Syrian rebels. The Syrian government
But for Syria's leadership, al Qaeda's work against the Bashar al-Assad regime is a boomerang. In an interview with CNN's Ivan Watson, the highest level government official to defect described further how Damascus has collaborated with al Qaeda since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Former Syrian ambassador to Iraq Nawaf al Fares said Syria "coordinated" with al Qaeda because they were threatened by the U.S. invasion:
IVAN WATSON: The Syrian government often accuses the opposition of being members of al Qaeda, terrorists, and yet Syria was accused for many years of allowing jihadis and Al Qaeda to cross through Syria to Iraq to carry out suicide bombings. You had to represent Syria in Iraq. Some people say it’s a cruel irony that now Syria’s being hit by suicide bombs, the kind that were seen in Baghdad?
NAWAF AL FARES: It’s lying. In 2003 after the American invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the Iraqi regime, the Syrian regime felt threatened. So they coordinated with Al Qaeda. They had an agreement to keep the road open to Iraq. So militants started coming from all over the world through Syria, under the eyes of the Syrian secret police who are directly responsible for the killing of thousands of Iraqis and Americans and coalition forces.
Al Qaeda was an ally of Bashar al Assad after 2003. He trained and provided shelter and built safe havens for Al Qaeda to hide in.
I remember one of those safe havens was in al Sukariya in Abu Kamal. The Americans raided it [in 2008] and captured prisoners. This was a hiding place for Al Qaeda on the border with Iraq. And it was under the control of Assif Shawkat, the brother in law of the president.
WATSON: You saw with your own eyes that Assif Shawkat was leading this Al Qaeda in Iraq operation?
FARES: One hour after the raid, Assif Shawkat was there at the location. A conversation took place between me and him… And he was angry about the attack made against Al Sukariya, and he was kind of scared.
The Al Qaeda in Syria and the one that worked in Iraq have a strong relationship with Bashar al Assad. But he scares the West by showing them that the only successor to the regime in Syria would be Al Qaeda. And he scares the Syrian people that if he leaves, Al Qaeda will come.
A senior U.S. official told CNN that Fares' claim is "broadly consistent with our understanding" of the Syrian regime's cooperation with al Qaeda "elements":
Since 2003, Asad allowed al-Qa’ida and associates to facilitate weapons, money and fighters to al-Qa’ida’s Iraq based affiliate, setting the conditions for those same elements to shift from Syria-based facilitation to active attacks – this time focused against the Asad regime.
This emerging al-Qa’ida operational presence in country bolsters our own argument that the sooner Asad leaves, the better. The faster the Syrian people are able to transition away from his regime, the faster they will be able to begin establishing the kind of open, democratic society that is anathema to both al-Qa’ida and Asad.
The present al-Qa’ida linked effort in Syria appears to be a small one and not at all representative of the broader Syrian opposition or Syrian people; in fact, we have seen oppositionists openly reject al-Qa’ida and its indiscriminate tactics.