ISTANBUL / AMMAN // Syrian intelligence agencies released Islamist militants from prison to deliberately subvert a peaceful uprising and ignite a violent rebellion, according to a former regime security official.
The claim comes ahead of peace talks in Switzerland on Wednesday, which President Bashar Al Assad’s government said should “fight terrorism”, a term he uses to describe all armed opposition groups.
But according to the former security officer it was the regime that intentionally exacerbated radicalism shortly after the uprising began in March 2011 in order to make itself the least bad choice for the international community and Syrians alike.
“The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades,” said the former member of Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate, one of more than a dozen of Syria’s secretive intelligence agencies.
The former officer said most of the releases happened over a period of four months up until October 2011 and that the project was overseen by the General Security Directorate, another of Syria’s widely feared security organisations and one of the most important.
Under pressure from opposition groups and the international community, the regime set free hundreds of detainees from jail in the first few months of the uprising as part of an amnesty.
But many political prisoners and protesters backing the peaceful uprising were kept in prison, while others, including known Islamist radicals and violent offenders, were quietly released.
Some former inmates of Saidnaya prison, a facility 50 km north of Damascus, went on to become prominent members of insurgent groups.
Zahran Aloush, commander of the Jaish Al Islam; Abdul Rahman Suweis of the Liwa al Haq; Hassan Aboud of Ahrar Al Sham; and Ahmad Aisa Al Sheikh, commander of Suqour Al Sham, were all held in regime jails prior to the uprising.
The commander of the powerful Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra, Abu Mohammad Al Jolani, is also rumoured to have been among those set free, although little is known about his true identity.
“Most of the important people in these extremist groups were in Saidnaya prison, not just Zahran Aloush. There were many of them and the regime let them go very deliberately,” the former intelligence officer said.
From the start of the uprising, the regime insisted it was facing an Islamist insurgency as a way of justifying its murderous response to overwhelmingly peaceful demands for political reforms.
To give that narrative credence and bolster support among the fearful religious minorities it depends on for support, as well as Syria’s moderate mainstream population, the regime sought to create instability inside Syria, including acts of violence by Sunni extremists, said the former intelligence officer. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
He is one of a small number of Alawite security officers who defected from the regime in protest at its tactics to break the uprising.
Although he left his position as head of a military intelligence unit in northern Syria in the summer of 2011, he remains in contact with some former colleagues and has not joined the opposition.
In fact, he believes Mr Al Assad should remain in power as a preferable alternative to radical Islamist factions that have come to dominate the armed rebellion.
Groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and Jabhat Al Nusra have been infiltrated by Syria’s security forces, the former intelligence officer said, with regime personnel helping them wage war against other Islamic groups and, in some cases, even against Syrian regime forces.
“This regime is clever, no one on the outside will ever understand what goes on inside,” he said, describing a shadowy system of intelligence branches spying on each other, betraying one another, sometimes promoting attacks by armed rebels on other security branches – all in the name of serving the president.
The officer, who served for 12 years in military intelligence, including a long stint in Aleppo, said Syria’s security agencies played a key role in sending Islamist insurgents to Iraq to fight US forces following the 2003 invasion, with President Al Assad fearful Syria would be America’s next target.
Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital – now a ruined cityscape, smashed by artillery and airstrikes – was a key recruitment and transit hub for militants.
When the fighters returned to Syria, many were jailed or executed by the secuirty services, the former officer said, as the authorities sought to reign in extremists who, back on home turf, might pose a threat to the regime.
However, with the 2011 uprising against Mr Al Assad refusing to die down after several months, the regime once again sought to exploit radical Islamists to make itself appear as a bastion of secular moderation.
“The regime wanted to tell the world it was fighting Al Qaeda but the revolution was peaceful in the beginning so it had to build an armed Islamic revolt. It was a specific, deliberate plan and it was easy to carry out.
“There were strong Islamic tendencies to the uprising so it just had to encourage them,” he said.
Another former regime official who has not joined the opposition agreed that there was a policy on the part of Mr Al Assad’s forces to create violence and terrorism to legitimise a crackdown on the opposition.
“You release a few people and you create the violence. It’s contagious,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Weapons were made available to radical elements of the opposition in key hotspots, including Deraa and Idlib, the former military intelligence officer said.
“This is not something I heard rumours about, I actually heard the orders, I have seen it happening,” the officer said. “These orders came down from [Military Intelligence] headquarters Damascus.”
The officer remains angry about the strategy of stoking radicalism, saying it was a key reason why he left his post. An incident in Jisr Al Shoughour, in northern Syria, in June 2011, proved decisive, after hearing higher ranked officers saying it was necessary to provoke sectarian bloodshed there, including the slaughter of fellow Alawite officers by Sunni rebels, in order to “serve the nation”.
“They [the regime] fed us nationalism but at the expense of our blood, they sold our blood to create Takfiris” he said, a reference to a radical Sunni ideology that regard Alawites as heretics who should be killed.
His claims could not be independently verified and he did not have documents supporting them. Syria’s security branches have, overwhelmingly, remained fanatically loyal to the regime with each depending on the other for survival.
Some regime supporters admit former detainees have joined the insurgency, but say that was not the authorities’ intention and is, rather, the responsibility of international powers, which pushed Mr Al Assad to free all political prisoners, including Islamists.
In other cases, rebel fighters say they were radicalised by the routine torture practised in regime detention cells, with security service brutality boosting the appeal of extremist groups.
Islamic radicals are now a major participant on all sides of the Syrian conflict, with Sunni rebel groups battling one another as well as against Shiite militias fighting alongside the regime.
The increasingly sectarian proxy war, with Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab Gulf states backing opposite sides, has killed in excess of 120,000 people, wounded hundreds of thousands more and forced upwards of 6 million Syrians to flee their homes.
It is a conflict that shows no sign of abating.
Opposition activists say about 1,500 inmates of Saidnaya, a major regime prison for Islamist militants, were freed by the Syrian government.
A former Saidnaya prisoner, jailed for three years but released before the uprising started, said many inmates went on to join armed rebel factions.
“Some of the important radical leaders [of armed groups] were in there including Jolani [the head of Jabhat Al Nusra], he said. “The Islamists were held in a separate wing of the prison but some of them like Aloush were famous. I didn’t see Jolani but people said he was in there,” the former detainee said.
Major General Fayez Dwairi, a former Jordanian military officer involved in Amman’s response to the growing crisis in Syria, said the Assad regime was directly involved in the growth of Islamic extremism.
“Many of the people who established Jabhat Al Nusra were captured by the regime in 2008 and were in prison. When the revolution started they were released on the advice of Syrian intelligence officers, who told Assad ‘they will do a good job for us. There are many disadvantages to letting them out, but there are more advantages because we will convince the world that we are facing Islamic terrorism’,” he said.
Maj Gen Dwairi said 46 leading members of Jabhat Al Nusra had been in Syrian regime custody, including its leader.
He also said Islamic groups had been infiltrated by Syrian intelligence agents.
A western security consultant, who has been involved in secret negotiations involving Jabhat Al Nusra, said senior figures involved with that group had been in Syrian prisons.
There have been other cases of the complex relationship between extremist militants and the regime. Some reports have said that after seizing oil fields in eastern Syria in 2012 Jabhat Al Nusra struck deals with the regime to transport the oil to the coast for export.
The former Syrian military intelligence officer said Mr Al Assad and his senior lieutenants had ruthlessly outmanoeuvred western and Arab states, dragging them into a regional sectarian war that, perversely, gave the regime better odds of survival than a peaceful uprising and gradual democratic change would have.
Western capitals now fear the Islamist-dominated opposition more than they do the regime, he said, making President Al Assad a potential ally rather than enemy.
“Syrian security opened the doors to the prisons, and they knew what would happen,” he said.