On May 13, the 75-year- old Franco-Syrian preacher, Imam Bassam Ayashi was sentenced to one year in prison in France for participating in the Syrian revolution as a member of Ahrar al- Sham (AAS), an Islamist rebel group that is considered to be a terrorist organization by the French government. “The slippery Imam,” as he has been dubbed by Le Monde newspaper for having previously evaded capture by security forces, admitted to charges of working with AAS in Idlib and having close contacts with the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda (AQ), Nusra Front (which has rebranded itself these days as HTS) when he was in Syria between 2013 and 2018. However, Ayashi, born in Aleppo in 1946, said his links with terrorist organizations had been actively pursued with the full coordination of French and Belgian intelligence services. Speaking at his trial in Paris, Ayashi told the jury, “You don’t know who I am,” and explained that he had traveled to Syria working as an agent on behalf of French and the Belgian intelligence.
The case of Ayashi sheds light on an important aspect of the Syrian revolution that has seriously been understudied, namely the extent of foreign infiltration of jihadi groups in Syria throughout the course of the Syrian revolution.
While AAS, the group to which the so-called ‘slippery Imam’ worked for as a judge and a trainer was the closest Islamic group to the mainstream Sunni community that had led much of the peaceful demonstrations in Syria, by 2013-2014 there is ample evidence to suggest that the group had become widely infiltrated by foreign governments. The evidence for large-scale infiltration of AAS perhaps lies in the events of September 2014 when around forty of the group’s top leaders were wiped out in an unexplained explosion during a secret meeting at the group’s heavily-fortified compound that has left the movement in deep disarray ever since.
The dramatic story of Imam Ayashi and his role as an informant, forces us to contemplate the extent of foreign infiltration of two other powerful jihadi groups that have emerged during the Syrian revolution: the Islamic State (ISIS), and the Syrian branch of AQ represented by the Nusra Front (HTS). If a local group, such as AAS, was so easily able to be infiltrated by foreign powers, then to what extent has infiltration also occurred in international jihadi organizations?
The infiltration of ISIS, or Daesh, is perhaps the most notorious case of foreign infiltration, with the group commonly referred to by political observers as an international ‘intelligence company,’ in which each foreign government has its own ‘shares’ or particular interests. As later military developments in Syria were to show, the bulk of penetration of ISIS was carried out by “eastern” forces working in order to advance the interests of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime.
By acting largely as a proxy for the Syrian regime, ISIS posed an enormous threat to pro-Western regional and international players who to sought to advance their own allies, the Syrian opposition and the FSA. In order to deal with ISIS, the US chose the lesser of two evils, and attempted to build up the Nusra Front and AAS as the most effective jihadist groups that were capable of taking on the ISIS challenge. However, by doing so, the US only ended up empowering Islamist zealots in the Nusra Front, paradoxically at the expense of the FSA itself.
Between 2014 and 2017 for example, much of the financial and military support provided by the US government to FSA groups through the secret MOC program fell into the hands of Nusra Front, which deployed armed patrols at Bab Al Hawa border gate to incercept shipments of weapons and ammunition, extracting a large part of the military aid as the price for allowing these shipments to reach safely to the warehouses of FSA groups. The Nusra Front also confiscated large sums of money from the cash that was paid by the FSA as salaries to its fighters. US officials who received reports about the diversion of funds and resources under the MOC program did little to prevent it, and failed to even raise the issue in discussions with the FSA leaders who simply submitted to the conditions imposed on them by the Nusra Front.
Even today, long after the termination of the MOC program, the Nusra Front (HTS) still has privileged access to American weapons, including TOW missiles. Moreover, with the complete eradication of ISIS in a massive military operation conducted between 2014 – 2019, the US implicitly tolerates the HTS today as the status quo authority governing Idlib in the northwest of Syria.
The question then is why did the US and its allies tolerate AQ, an Islamist group, when they clearly refused to countenance ISIS? The answer lies partly in the nature of the infiltration of each of these two groups. While ISIS was mainly a Russian and Iranian proxy which not only fought against the FSA but also conducted terrorist attacks inside Turkey and Europe, AQ has always attempted to play more of a political role and to reach out to international and regional governments. In the course of the Syrian war, AQ worked militarily against the Syrian regime and Russia, and has always said it adheres to Syrian nationalist goals rather than subscribing to the ideology of international jihad. Today, while the HTS constitutes the greatest threat to the headquarters of the Russian army in Hmemim base in the west of Syria, it is tacitly accepted as the de facto state in Idlib, bordering an important NATO country without any major security issues. In short, while ISIS has an ‘eastern’ face, in contrast, AQ appears far more more acceptable to the West.
With the defeat of ISIS and those groups operating closely with it, it is now jihadi groups close to AQ, such as AAS, the group to which Imam Ayashi worked for, that still remain in Syria and are thriving in Idlib and in the Turkish-held area of northern Aleppo.
But whether the infiltration of Islamic groups was benign or malignant, there is no doubt that it is the Syrian revolution as a whole that has been the biggest loser. Amid intense conflict over strategic influence, regional and international actors have sought to achieve their own narrow self-interests, and exploited the dynamics of the Syrian revolution, even if that meant empowering jihadi groups over patriotic rebels. While the narrative of jihad has gained prominence in the Syrian conflict, it is still the responsibility of the revolutionaries to safeguard the legitimate narrative of the Syrian revolution as a noble struggle for democracy, justice and freedom for the Syrian people.