Exclusive interview: why I defected from Bashar al-Assad’s regime, by former diplomat Nawaf Fares
Mr Fares made a series of devastating claims against the Assad regime, which he said was determined to be “victorious” whatever the cost.
* Jihadi units that Mr Fares himself had helped Damascus send to fight US troops in neighbouring Iraq were involved in the string of deadly suicide bomb attacks in Syria
* The attacks were carried on the direct orders of the Assad regime, in the hope that it could blame them on the rebel movement …
Mr Fares’s most damaging allegation is that the Syrian government itself has a hand in the nationwide wave of suicide bombings on government buildings, which have killed hundreds of people and maimed thousands more. By way of example, he cited the twin blasts outside a military intelligence building in the al-Qazzaz suburb of Damascus in May, which killed 55 people and injured another 370.
“I know for certain that not a single serving intelligence official was harmed during that explosion, as the whole office had been evacuated 15 minutes beforehand,” he said. “All the victims were passers by instead. All these major explosions have been have been perpetrated by al-Qaeda through cooperation with the security forces.”
Such allegations have been aired in general terms by the Syrian opposition before, and Mr Fares would not be drawn on what exact proof he had. He is, however, better placed than many to make such claims. One of the reasons for his rise in President Assad’s regime was that he is a senior member of the Oqaydat tribe, a highly powerful clan whose population straddles the Syrian-Iraq border. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, their territory became part of the conduit used by Syria to smuggle jihadi volunteers into Iraq, with Mr Fares playing an important role.
“After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the regime in Syria began to feel danger, and began planning to disrupt the US forces inside Iraq, so it formed an alliance with al-Qaeda,” he said. “All Arabs and other foreigners were encouraged to go to Iraq via Syria, and their movements were facilitated by the Syrian government. As a governor at the time, I was given verbal commandments that any civil servant that wanted to go would have his trip facilitated, and that his absence would not be noted. I believe the Syrian regime has blood on its hands, it should bare responsibility for many of the deaths in Iraq.”
He himself, he added, knew personally of several Syrian government “liaison officers” who still dealt with al-Qaeda. “Al-Qaeda would not carry out activities without knowledge of the regime,” he said. “The Syrian government would like to use al-Qaeda as a bargaining chip with the West – to say: ‘it is either them or us’.”
He also rejected the Syrian government’s common claim that the rebellion is being led by militants from al Qaeda. Instead, he accused Damascus of cooperating closely with al Qaeda militants, ever since the U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq in 2003. “The Syrian regime felt threatened and felt that it, too, might fall,” Fares recalled. “So they had an agreement with al Qaeda to keep the road open to Iraq. The militants started coming from all over the world through Syria, under the eyes of the Syrian secret police, which are directly responsible for the killing of thousands of Iraqis in Iraq as well as Americans and coalition forces.
“The secret police were encouraging enthusiastic young people in Syria to go for jihad in Iraq and join al Qaeda,” Fares continued. “Bashar al-Assad and his security forces are directly responsible for the killing of thousands and thousands of Iraqis and coalition forces, because he gave al Qaeda everything it needed. He trained and provided shelter and he built safe havens for them to hide in.” One of these “safe havens,” Fares said, was the Syrian border village of al Sukariya, near the border city of Abu Kamal.
In response to the accusations, a senior U.S. administration official said that Fares’ claims about the Syrian government ‘s cooperation with al Qaeda during the war in Iraq are “broadly consistent with our understanding.” “Since 2003, al-Assad allowed al Qaeda and associates to facilitate weapons, money and fighters to al Qaeda’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 al-Assad regime,” the official said.
“This emerging al Qaeda operational presence in country bolsters our own argument that the sooner al-Assad leaves, the better,” said the official, noting that that the current al Qaeda-linked effort in Syria is small and not representative of either the opposition or the broader population. In October of 2008, the U.S. government claimed responsibility for a controversial cross-border raid into Syria near Abu Kamal. U.S. officials later told CNN that special forces soldiers and helicopter gunships targeted an Iraqi man named Abu Ghadiya, who they called “the top facilitator of al Qaeda foreign fighters into Iraq.
At the time, the Syrian government angrily protested the violation of its airspace and what it said was the killing of eight civilians. Four years later, however, Fares claimed the American forces had in fact struck an al Qaeda training camp run by one of al-Assad’s close relatives by marriage. “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,” Fares said. “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,” Fares recalled.
Claims like this, which CNN cannot independently confirm, will likely make the former Syrian ambassador a much sought-after asset for Western intelligence agencies, as well as for the Qatari government. Doha has publicly lobbied for arming Syrian rebels against the al-Assad regime. Fares went on to repeat a long-stated Syrian opposition accusation: that the Syrian government is staging al Qaeda-style attacks in Syria as a fear-mongering tactic.