UPI reports: U.S. officials allege Iranian intelligence is actively helping al-Qaida fighters in Syria, even though the jihadists are battling to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad, Tehran’s key Arab ally.
At first glance, this would seem to fly in the face of a high-profile effort by U.S. President Barack Obama to achieve detente with Iran, America’s longtime adversary, which — if it comes off — would dramatically alter the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.
At a deeper level, analysts say it makes sense, inasmuch as Tehran helping al-Qaida reinforce jihadist fighters engaged in vicious infighting with other Syrian rebel forces, including Islamists, means the divided insurgents are weakening themselves and not Assad’s beleaguered regime in Damascus.
The U.S. Treasury Department, targeting a diverse group of entities and individuals for allegedly evading international sanctions against Iran, aiding missile proliferation and supporting terrorism, said last week Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS, was working with al-Qaida operatives directing jihadists to Syria.
Treasury has made this claim before. In February 2012, it cited the MOIS, Iran’s principal intelligence service, for supporting terrorist groups, “including al-Qaida and al-Qaida in Iraq … again exposing the extent of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism as a matter of Iranian state policy.”
A year earlier, it singled out a senior al-Qaida operative it identified as a Syrian named Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, aka Yasin al-Suri, as the group’s chief facilitator in Iran.
He allegedly is still operating there. Al-Jazeera reported in January al-Suri “is more active than ever.”
Analyst Thomas Joscelyn of the Long War Journal, which tracks global terrorism, says: “Al-Suri operates under an agreement that was struck between the Iranian regime and al-Qaida years ago. He first began operating inside Iran in 2005.
“It’s not clear why the Iranian government would allow al-Suri to act as a facilitator for al-Qaida’s operations in Syria. … The Iranian regime, however, has mastered duplicity and may have unknown reasons for keeping tabs on al-Qaida’s operations.”
Jason Ditz writes:
That the Assad government is literally Iran’s closest ally on the planet and that al-Qaeda is openly hostile to Iran’s Shi’ite government are both unchanged, and of course that means Iran backing al-Qaeda against Syria is literally the last thing they’d do.
Actually, the idea that Iran might provide some kind of support to a group fighting its closest ally does not require a great leap of imagination. I’ll explain why, but first note that I chose the term group.
Now more than ever, the term al Qaeda begs more questions than it answers.
There are in Syria two groups both being referred to as al Qaeda affiliates: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS aka ISIL, the successor of al Qaeda in Iraq). Yet al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently made it clear that the organization’s central command neither authorized the creation of ISIS nor views it as part of al Qaeda.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi writes:
[T]he media’s constant descriptions of ISIS as an “al-Qaeda affiliate” until this recent statement have been deeply misguided and reflect a misunderstanding of how ISIS has seen itself.
According to ISIS supporters and fighters I know, ISIS and its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), have been independent of al-Qaeda since the inception of ISI in October 2006. This line of narrative — articulated by them long before this statement — argues that when ISI was formed, it absorbed what was then al-Qaeda in Iraq (which was certainly the main component of the ISI umbrella coalition), as the pledge of allegiance was switched from al-Qaeda to the emir of ISI.
ISIS’ supporters and fighters further point to Zawahri’s statement in 2007 explicitly stating that there is no “al-Qaeda in Iraq” anymore, as it had joined other jihadist groups in the ISI.
Regardless of whether one wishes to accept this narrative of independence from al-Qaeda from the very beginning, there is no doubt that the ISI quickly became an organization capable of supporting itself financially and supplying its own manpower.
The recent Treasury Department statement made no reference to ISIS and announced:
…the designation of a key Iran-based al-Qa’ida facilitator [Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov] who supports al-Qa’ida’s vital facilitation network in Iran, that operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities. The network also uses Iran as a transit point for moving funding and foreign fighters through Turkey to support al-Qa’ida-affiliated elements in Syria, including the al-Nusrah Front.
So let’s assume that Iran welcomes support flowing towards al Nusra and this story isn’t anti-Iranian propaganda manufactured in Washington, how might this serve Iranian interests?
Since al Nusra is now in conflict with ISIS and since ISIS poses a threat to the Maliki government in Iraq (which is itself closely aligned with Iran), strengthening Nusra at ISIS’s expense may help Iran. Moreover, Iran may view the fight between the two groups in a similar way that Edward N. Luttwak last year characterized the whole war in Syria: “There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.”
That is to say, as the UPI reports suggests, Iran may be fueling a fight in which it hopes all the combatants come out weaker.