On 27th May 2012, Ismail Gha’ani, senior commander of the Quds Force – a branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – announced that the IRGC is working within Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and “if the Islamic republic was not present in Syria, the massacre of people would have happened on a much larger scale.” This was reported by the semi-official media body ISNA (Iranian Student`s News Agency).
Gha’ani’s statements can be considered a specific insight into the manner in which Syria is now being used as a theatre for the strategic conflict between the Iranian regime and al-Qaeda. The Iranian maneuvers taking place in Syria, as in many other regions of the world (most recently in Kenya where last Monday two Iranians were arrested carrying explosives and planning to attack US, British, Saudi, and Israeli targets), reveal that Iran is trying to tighten its control over international jihad.
During the past months Iran has exerted relentless efforts to ease the tension between Tehran and al-Qaeda`s leadership. The cause of the tension stems from disagreements between the two sides over Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. While Iran has been investing a great deal to help al-Assad in his confrontations with the opposition on the one hand, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda`s new leader, has ordered the organization to expand its activities in Syria.
The friction between Tehran and al-Qaeda in Syria escalated when one of the cells affiliated to the terrorist organization blew up a car bomb in front of the Iranian security office in Damascus, in response to Iran handing over a senior al-Qaeda official to Mauritania, who was very close to al-Qaeda`s founder, Osama Bin Laden.
Despite the tension, Iran cannot fully abandon its use of international jihad as a means to carry out attacks in various parts of the world. Therefore, the Iranians are trying to settle the dispute with al-Qaeda, regarding each side`s stance toward the Syrian regime, in order to tighten its grip over the organization.
For at least two years, Iran and al-Qaeda have been allies, reaching agreements that have paved the way for wider logistical and practical cooperation. In terms of logistics, Iran has funded al-Qaeda and released its activists from Iranian prisons, whilst practical cooperation has focused on attacks launched abroad. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two forces of the “resistance” has deteriorated during the past months because al-Zawahiri`s orders have been reiterated in public, for all to see, calling for the intensification of al-Qaeda`s activities in Syria.
The al-Qaeda leadership considers Syria to be a major new field for activity because of the fragile state of the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition`s lack of unity. Hence al-Qaeda is exerting a great deal of effort to renew its terrorist activities in Syria. As part of these efforts, al-Qaeda has established a new organization in Syria; “al-Nusrah Front”. Al-Nusrah Front has received a great deal of assistance from al-Qaeda elements, who are operating from Iran under the radar of the authorities there.
Muhsin al-Fadli, the most prominent terrorist activist “residing” in Iran, who has helped al-Nusrah Front from within the Islamic Republic, is in fact the head of al-Qaeda there. Because of the exposure of his latest activities, al-Fadli is expected to leave Iran for Syria soon, and to be replaced by someone whose identity is still unknown; in order to continue to coordinate al-Qaeda`s activities in Syria from within Iran.
Iran has made considerable endeavors to help and rescue Bashar al-Assad’s regime, opposing any al-Qaeda activity against its fundamental ally, Damascus, including any terrorist operation against Syria.
The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, which is responsible for Iran`s relations with al-Qaeda, has tried many means to exert pressure on the organization’s leadership, to force it to halt its operations in Syria. The most prominent example was the handing over of Mahfouz Ould al-Walid to Mauritania on the 2nd April 2012, after he had spent years in an Iranian prison.
The handing over of Ould al-Walid, who was considered a close affiliate of Osama Bin Laden, was an unexpected step with the aim of sending a message to al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda’s leadership conveyed to Iran that this handover was in contradiction with the articles of the agreement signed between the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security and al-Qaeda in Pakistan in 2009. According to the agreement, any al-Qaeda senior official released from an Iranian prison should be handed over to the al-Qaeda network in Iran.
In response to Ould al-Walid’s handover – after Mauritania asked for his extradition – al-Qaeda’s leadership activated its Syrian branch, al-Nusrah Front, to send a special message and commit a terrorist attack against an Iranian target in Syria. Al-Nusrah Front received the orders, and within three weeks, on the 24th April, it launched an attack using a car bomb parked outside the offices of the Iranian Cultural Attaché in the center of Damascus. On that day, the head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria General Robert Mood said that al-Qaeda was behind that explosion, and this was followed by similar announcements by Washington and a number of European countries.
On the 30th April, al-Nusrah Front claimed responsibility for another explosion that targeted an Iranian security mission that had been operating under the cover of a “cultural center”.
Hence al-Qaeda has indicated to Iran that it does not intend to turn a blind eye to Iranian policies, and it has warned Tehran against adopting any additional measures against al-Qaeda’s activities.
Yet it seems that Iranians have not been deterred; on the contrary, they seem to be continuing to exert every effort to spread their control over al-Qaeda, especially within Syria. It is noteworthy that al-Nusrah Front has stopped issuing statements. Meanwhile, Iran is adopting a policy that combines warning the organization and exerting efforts to improve relations.
For instance, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security has informed Syria that Iran is considering the extradition of Yasin al-Suri, one of al-Qaeda`s senior activists, who has been detained in solitary confinement in Tehran since December 2011. The Iranian and Syrian intelligence organizations have reached a joint assessment that the extradition of Yasin al-Suri to Syria may deliver a strong warning to al-Qaeda to halt its operations within Syria.
Despite all these developments, Iran has not ruled out the option of using international jihadist activists as agents for terrorist operations abroad. At the same time, Tehran is trying to consolidate its control and influence over al-Qaeda in particular.
Iran is determined to continue to cooperate with al-Qaeda, because it considers the terrorist network to be a strategic tool which it can use, and subsequently hide its involvement.
At the same time, Iran is consolidating its cooperation with other jihadist elements operating in Iran. In the past weeks, Iranian intelligence services have reached out to additional jihadist elements and are dealing with them to prepare for future operations, especially as the international economic and oil siege intensifies around the country.
Apart from al-Qaeda, there are many other non-Arab organizations operating in Iran that could be a source of assistance. These organizations include radical Turkish, Uzbek, and Kurdish groups.
The exposure of the conflict between Iran and al-Qaeda within Syria reveals, firstly, the narrow margin available for al-Qaeda to mobilize there, contrary to what the Syrian regime claims, because of “the presence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Quds Force,” as Ismail Gha’ani stressed. The conflict also reveals that the Syrian regime itself, which rejects any “non-Syrian” settlement of its current crisis, has become a “non-Syrian” entity because of Russian and Iranian manipulation!
The question remains: Will Iraq return to become the scene for al-Qaeda`s revenge, in order to compensate for the Syrian events!