Syrian President Bashar Assad's anti-U.S. strategy during the 2003-11 Iraq War has come back to bite him.
Mr. Assad allowed al Qaeda operatives to set up a "rat line" through his country and into northeastern Iraq. Hundreds of young terrorists, many recruited from North Africa, took airline flights into Damascus and joined networks ready to sneak them across the border.
Mr. Assad's objective: to keep the U.S. occupation off balance by helping al Qaeda kill Americans.
But Mr. Assad's move also enabled al Qaeda to set up a logistics foothold in Syria that now is being used against him.
The al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front is conducting war on the Assad regime with a band of about 6,000 fighters established by jihadists in January 2012. It wants Mr. Assad to be replaced by a Sunni Islamic state.
Al Nusra knows how to move men and arms inside Syria to the point where, analysts say, they have become the most deadly force among a hodgepodge of opposition groups.
"Al Qaeda fighters who are back in Syria, I am confident, they are relying on much they learned in moving through Syria into Iraq for more than five years when they were waging war against the U.S. and Iraq Security Assistance Force," said retired Army Gen. John M. Keane, an adviser to commanders in Iraq.
In fact, al Qaeda kept alive its networks in Syria, according to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, N.Y., which advises Washington policymakers. It notes in a May 2012 report, as jihadists streamed into Syria, "Al Qaeda has an active affiliate in neighboring Iraq that has long-standing logistical capabilities in Syria."
More than any other Middle Eastern leader, it was Mr. Assad who bolstered al Qaeda's ranks in Iraq. He let fighters use his country as a platform to jump into Iraq, where they learned how to inflict mass killings of civilians and ambush U.S. and Iraqi troops — skills used today against Syria's regime.
Thousands of al Qaeda recruits moved through Syria into Iraq in the mid- to late 2000s, said a former military intelligence official who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss what he did in Iraq. In some instances, the U.S. intercepted 10 to 20 in one group trying to make their way to the homes of a network commander.
"Inside Syria, they moved from safe house to safe house," the former official said. "They crossed the border at check stations where they had sympathizers or paid off dirty guards."
Gen. Keane said U.S. joint intelligence/special operations units became so adept at finding and killing al Qaeda that headquarters in Pakistan shut off the flow.
Now, however, with U.S. troops gone and Iraqi counterterrorism not on a par with that of the Americans, al Qaeda has rebuilt networks, freed some fighters from prison and sent manpower to the Al Nusra Front.
Gen. Keane, recalling briefings he received in Baghdad, said the Assad regime actively promoted the flow of terrorists into Iraq.
"Syria intelligence services facilitated the movement of al Qaeda fighters from Damascus airport to the eastern border of Syria," he said.
At Damascus airport, he said, they were easy to pick out: "Bearded. One-way ticket. Very little luggage."
The Combating Terrorism Center issued a study in 2007 that looked at about 700 foreign fighters, based on records seized by the U.S. in a village near the Syrian border.
All those listed had come to Iraq via Syria within one year, an indication of a sophisticated operation that is being reversed as fighters move into Syria from Iraq.
"For Syria, supporting jihadi groups is at best a double-edged sword," the West Point report says.
The Congressional Research Service reported in June: "Many analysts fear that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I) also has been active in the Syrian civil war, supporting and training Sunni extremist groups in Syria."
Asked to assess Al Nusra in its second year, a U.S. official said: "The Nusra Front is clearly playing an important role in the opposition because the group's roughly 6,000 fighters are disciplined, well-armed and capable. They've also partnered effectively with other rebel brigades. However, Nusra is still just one part of a complex, multipronged opposition that doesn't have one dominant force."
The Nusra Front's rise is one reason liberals and conservatives question the Obama's administration's decision to provide small arms to selected rebels, bringing the risk that al Qaeda might end up with them.
"Basically, it's not a matter of size but of determination and resources," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon policymaker and an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "Al Nusra isn't a Syrian organization. It is international.
"On jihadi websites, you can read the obituaries of Saudi, Turkish and even Swedish and German fighters. If you want two words to reinforce why arming the Syrian opposition is such a bad idea, they are 'Nusra Front.'"
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