Roy Gutman reports: After spending a month in an Aleppo prison at the start of the Syrian uprising, political activist Abdullah Hakawati thought he knew what to expect when Bashar al-Assad’s military intelligence arrested him for a second time in September 2011.
He was hanged by his hands for four days. They beat him with clubs and iron bars, and used electric prods on his genitals, he says. Then came the surprise: After a staged trial and a conviction for terrorism, he was sentenced to a lockup where his cellmates were hardcore al Qaeda veterans, newly transferred from Syria’s political prisons.
“It was the first time I saw someone from the al Qaeda movement face to face,” said Hakawati, an actor who’d played the lead role in an anti-regime play that spring and had helped organize demonstrations in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city. “They threatened to slaughter me because I’m an atheist and I do not pray.”
After weeks in the same cell with the al Qaeda veterans, who were “practically the managers of the prison,” five of Hakawati’s colleagues joined the extremists, many later taking up arms against Assad.
Mixing civic activists with al Qaeda veterans was no accident.
The Syrian president had alleged that armed terrorists had led the national uprising in 2011, which seemed preposterous at the time. So Assad used his security apparatus to make the reality match his propaganda. Claiming to be the victim of extremism, he in fact played the principal enabling role in its rise in the region, a two-year investigation by The Daily Beast shows. The scene at Aleppo Central Prison was part of a concerted effort to radicalize and discredit the nationwide revolt.
As President-elect Donald Trump weighs closer military cooperation with the Assad regime in fighting ISIS, the story of Assad’s role in the rise of the so-called Islamic State could come home to haunt him. Critics say that any U.S. collaboration with Assad or his Russian protectors will backfire, leaving the Syrian leader in power as he continues to play his long-running double game with terrorists. [Continue reading…]