Middle East Monitor Online (MEMO) has published an article by Yvonne Ridley that consists of an interview with Hassan Abboud just a few hours before he and most of the Ahrar a-Sham leadership were killed on September 9. The accusations Ridley records Abboud levelling against the Islamic State (I.S.) are deeply upsetting to the conventional view of the Syrian conflict.
Dissociating the I.S. from Islam, which is an argument outsiders cannot really comment on, Abboud said: “There is something hidden from the rest of the world,” about the Islamic State, “but for us fighting on the ground” there is some more clarity: no force can “grow and develop” as the I.S. has “without entering into a conflict with the Assad regime,” and this has not happened. Abboud says:
For instance, even if there are three cars travelling in the countryside Assad’s air force will strike them in the belief that it must be a convoy. Now you tell me, when movement is coming under such intense scrutiny how was ISIS able to move a convoy of 200 vehicles from one province to another and finally into Iraq without coming under one single attack or meeting resistance at any regime checkpoints?
Abboud goes on to say that the opposition: “believes that ISIS is linked closely to the terrorist regime and serves the interests of the clique of President Bashar Assad, directly or indirectly,” adding that the I.S.’s “terrorist actions [are] hostile to the Syrian revolution.”
Abboud remarks on the way the I.S. has acted since it emerged, refusing to deal with other insurgent groups and instead attacking them, while it did not attack the Assad regime. I.S. “weren’t engaged in fighting Assad’s forces they also appeared to spend a great deal of leisure time with limitless resources and funds,” Abboud said. Abboud concluded: “I do know that there is a real relationship between ISIS and the Syrian regime. And at the moment one cannot exist without helping the other.”
As it happens, except for those who are wilfully blind, these accusations are rather mild: the regime’s holding off attacks against the I.S. and directing its firepower against the rebellion, the I.S. trying to monopolise power in the liberated areas by attacking the rebellion rather than expanding the liberated zones by attacking the regime, the fact that a Police State and mukhabarat (intelligence agencies) as effective as Assad’s must have some agents inside the I.S., and the mutual need the regime and the I.S. have for one-another and their overriding alliance of interest in destroying the nationalist rebels are all well enough known.
What is new is that Abboud says: “I think it was all worked out and devised by Qassem Suleimani … He is the one person who could have pulled all of this together.” Ridley writes in her own words that Abboud accuses Suleimani of having “trained” members of the Islamic State but she does not provide the quotes from Abboud to substantiate that Abboud levelled this accusation, let alone that it is true.
That said, the accusation that Iran’s intelligence agencies, specifically the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corp, are complicit in the rise of the Islamic State is surprising only to those who have no experience with what happened in Algeria. There have been repeated accusations of I.S. fighters having Iranian stamps in their passports and to this day an Iran-based Qaeda network is in operation that funnels weapons, money, and fighters into Syria for Jabhat an-Nusra, and this network, at least until the I.S.-Qaeda split, contributed to the Zarqawi’ite network in Iraq we now know as the Islamic State, which was itself supported by Iran in numerous ways—both indirect and direct—from its very inception. That Iran is facilitating Salafi-jihadists in Syria is uncontroversial: the evidence for the Assad regime facilitating the Salafi-jihadists is overwhelming—and Iran controls the regime. To find that Iran was actually training the men who go into the field and claim to act for the I.S.—with their lurid violence that helps keep the “international community” wary of the insurgency and push the population into the arms of the security forces—would suggest Syria had moved further down the road to Algeria, where Le Pouvoir managed to seize control of the insurgency, to go as far as having its agents dress as Islamists (or be in charge of brigades of Islamists) that massacred whole villages and deliberately left survivors to tell of the takfiris (survivors are otiose in 2014: the killer squads can just ensure the carnage makes its way to YouTube).
Still, there are very good reasons for caution on at least three levels.
One is that Abboud has an obvious interest in saying this to dissociate his own extreme ideology, of which the Islamic State is a logical endpoint, from the crimes committed in its name and to instead make them an extension of the regime’s criminality, which means the weight of Abboud’s words alone as evidence is not very great. The second is the author, Yvonne Ridley, a known extremist and conspiratorial agitator, who has among other things flirted with antisemism. This, however, does not necessarily discredit the report since the words come from Abboud, and being a fabricator is quite separate from being a zealot. The third is the outlet. MEMO’s mission statement makes clear that it is very much an activist group, focussed on the “Palestinian cause,” a seemingly wilfully vague way of phrasing MEMO’s support for HAMAS.
The director of MEMO is Daud Abdullah, a former Deputy Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). The MCB sometimes gets itself described as “moderate” but it is no such thing—its last chairman was Muhammad Abdul Bari, who had also been president of the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), an open jihadist group. Abdullah is also a signatory to the Istanbul Declaration (2009), which commits to “jihad and Resistance,” which must be “fought by all means” against Israel. MEMO’s senior editor is Ibrahim Hewitt, who heads a “charity” called Interpal, which was designated as a terrorist entity in 2003 by the United States and Hewitt has written—in a document intended for children—that the death penalty for homosexuals is necessary to “maintain the purity of the society and to keep it clean of perverted elements”. (In the same paragraph Hewitt says that “free mixing” of the sexes is also discouraged, which might be called mixed-messaging.) Hewitt also thinks adulterers should be stoned to death.
It is therefore easy to see why a group sympathetic to Salafi-jihadism should wish to shift the blame for the discredit this ideology brings on itself when implemented onto this ideology’s sworn enemies, the Alawi regime in Syria and the Shi’a regime in Iran. But it is also true that the Islamic State really is being manipulated by the Assad regime and the Iranian security agents that control the regime’s military sector in a counter-terrorism operation based around provocation that aims to shatter the insurgency by first having it taken over by takfiris, and then presenting this binary choice—the regime or the takfiris—to the local population and the international community.
It also has to be said that in the specific case of Ms. Ridley is a person who has been supportive of the Iranian theocracy. She has taken money from the Tehran dictatorship when she worked for its English-language propaganda station, Press TV, and in June 2009 as Iranians protested the fraudulent election and were met with extreme violence from the regime, Ridley let it be known: “I’m quite a fan of Mahmoud Admadinejad [sic] who is adored by the common man and woman in Iran.” In other words, there is an evidence-against-interest reason to think that if Ridley is reporting this—which damages Iran and supports a rebel commander who is at least objectively on the same side as the West—she is reporting accurately.