This Blog will examine the overall situation in the Middle East. The focus will be on the ongoing conflict in Syria between the Assad regime and the rebels, as well as the issues urrounding Iran's nuclear program. Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @jkc_in_dc
Saturday, May 24, 2014
Assad Is Odious - But the West Still Talks To Him Behind the Scenes
Two years ago, many were predicting the imminent fall of the Assad regime. As an increasing amount of Syrian territory slipped out of the regime’s control, it seemed like only a matter of time until rebel forces would be in central Damascus. Now, however, the narrative regarding Assad’s survivability has changed dramatically.
If there was any doubt about Assad’s staying power, news out of Damascus should put paid to that notion quickly enough. According to a BBC article, Western intelligence agencies have been visiting Damascus for talks with the Syrians on how to mutually combat the radical Islamist groups fighting the Assad regime. As readers familiar with the events in Syria are no doubt aware, the opposition to Assad has been increasingly co-opted by radical Jihadist al-Qaeda-affiliated groups such as al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), resulting in continued strong support for Assad amongst Syria’s non-Sunni minorities, especially the Alawites who form the backbone of the Assad regime.
Why, however, would western intelligence agencies be interested in talking with the Assad regime? The answer is that large numbers of European Muslims have gone to Syria to fight with the opposition, most of whom have ended up joining al-Nusra or ISIS. I have seen estimates of the number of Europeans fighting in Syria as anywhere between 1,500 – 3,000, including 700 from France alone.
From the perspective of western intelligence agencies, Europeans who travel to Syria to fight Assad could easily end up becoming radicalized there, especially if they have joined the two al-Qaeda groups within the opposition. Naturally, European governments worry about the threat of thousands of their radicalized citizens returning to the Europe and turning the skills they have gained in Syria against their own countries. While European intelligence agencies can track a few tens of returning radicals, once you get into the range of thousands the threat matrix increases exponentially.
Clearly, one excellent source of information about European Muslims fighting with the opposition in Syria would be the Assad regime itself. Brutal but effective, Assad’s security agencies — the dreaded Mukhabarat and the Military Intelligence Directorate — are a prime source of information for information of interest to European intelligence agencies concerned with protecting their own homelands against a possible new nexus of terror. Of course, there is no official confirmation from European intelligence agencies of there coordination with the Assad regime, there is strong evidence that this is gpoing on behind the scenes.
Does this mean that the West is now tilting to Assad? Not so far, and indeed, the western line continues to be that “Assad must go.” However, the very fact that leading western intelligence agencies are now even talking to the Assad regime — much less cooperating with it — shows how messy and confusing the Syrian civil war has become. At the end of the day, however, countries tend to focus on their own national interests — first and foremost of which is protecting their own homelands — and from that perspective it is not altogether surprising that western spies are buddying up with the Assad regime — however odious we may find Assad to be.