Manuel Bewarder, Florian Flade,
In Die Welt, May 19, 2016
Translated from German by Tom Winter.
Note: This Die Welt write-up first presents Assad just as the US State Department, or even Senator McCain would. But there was a surprise…
The secret journeys of the BND to Damascus and the Syrian dictator are counted as illegal. Yet European intelligence services are once again seeking contact with his regime. Even the Federal Intelligence Service. Bashar Assad, our enemy and helper?
It is a dilemma. How to deal with Bashar al-Assad? An outlaw dictator who is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Who massacred his his people for years with poison gas and barrel bombs. Who has forced millions of people to flee. Meanwhile his fall has become increasingly unlikely through the backup from Moscow and Tehran.
Angela Merkel (CDU) embarked a few months on a surprising new tone when she spoke about the war in Syria. “There have to be talks with many players,” said the Chancellor with a view to a possible end to the crisis. “This includes Assad.”
The Federal Government is therefore prepared to shake hands with the despot. What seems like an absolute turnaround isn’t, actually. Talks at the security services level with the Syrian regime are again being conducted. Under the table.
According to digging by Welt am Sonntag, there is a lively exchange between Europe and the Syrian secret security apparatus. They are primarily directed at the common enemy: the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS).
The Assad regime has even provided information that could have stopped some of the Paris-bombers. Assad, our enemy and helper?
The wire to Damascus is precious
The Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND) has contacts with a total of 451 secret services in 167 countries. The BND President Gerhard Schindler repeatedly stresses this. The Germans are appreciated as reliable partner by the Americans, the British, the French, the Israelis. The German spy-chief only speaks reluctantly about contacts in certain other countries. Russia or China, for example. Or even the regime in Syria.
Here, the wire to Damascus for the German agency is extremely valuable. In Syria there’s a humanitarian disaster underway. Millions of people are on the run. Add to the mix the civil war now involving Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others. The country has become a training center for thousands of jihadists.
“We need reliable findings about travel routes,” said BND Schindler in a speech in October 2014, as already Islamists by the hundreds traveled to the region from Germany. “We need reliable findings on the returnees.” And: “Finally, we need reliable findings on possible planned attacks against targets in the west.” All this “can only happen by working together with the services of the region.” Cooperation in turn implies: give and take.
The interplay of German diplomacy and the secret services in the Middle East have traditionally not been the worst. There are good contacts not only with Israel but also with the Lebanese Hezbollah, and Hamas. And even in Syria, there have always been contacts. Many veteran Syrian intelligence people were formed in the GDR.
After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the BND intensified the contacts with Damascus. While the US government officially denominated Syria as a “rogue state,” German officials helped the CIA with the rendition of the Hamburg Islamist Mohammed Haydar Zammar to Syria. There he was interrogated in prison, by, among others, officials of the Bundeskriminalamt (Federal Crime Service, BKA).
“Morality is no category”
With the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 silence reigned. Torture chambers full of corpses, barrel bombs, and even the use of poison gas – Assad used almost everything in order to completely himself on the world’s political stage.** The German Embassy in Damascus has been essentially shut down since the spring of 2012.
But it is precisely in such a situation that policy surrenders, and the cooperation of intelligence services becomes essential, according to security sources. Conversation threads need to be maintained at least at the lowest level. “Morality is not a category,” said a BND agent.
Not later than spring 2013, when the German journalist Armin Wertz was kidnapped in Aleppo, the German and Syrian spies came closer again. There were media reports that even BND President Schindler personally traveled to Syria in the BND airliner. Even though this may not ring true.
But in the BND Beirut offices several meetings have already been woven together, including in recent months. Every now and then there have been rushing convoys of German agents from from the neighboring country to the Syrian capital. An interlocutor for the Germans on the spot being General Ali Mamluk, Assad’s security adviser and intelligence coordinator.
The fight against IS has priority
The intentions of the delicate missions are clear: The Germans want to keep their important role in the region. If German soldiers are stationed there, they want to be able to protect them.*** And again and again it’s a matter of getting kidneapped Germn citizens freed.
But the priority is the fight against IS. Together against terrorists – with this slogan Assad tries to stir the Western community towards cooperation. European and American angst about terrorists used as a possible stirrup for a return to the world stage, and this tactic could be successful. Because not only the Germans were in on such meetings, but also the British, French and Spanish have been in Damascus, already in 2013.
Within a few months, Assad gave a list to the Europeans. This is a list of numbers of 3,800 blank Syrian passports that the IS csptured in the cities of Rakka and Deir ez-Zour. The fear was great that jihadists could use the documents to go undetected to Europe.
A thesis, which should prove to be true in a terrible manner. Assad’s people even used an official channel, namely the Damascus Interpol Office, summer of 2014. Implying the direct cooperation of the regime. Contact persons are Colonel Khalid al-Hussain and Major General Abdel Karim Mohammed Haj Saleh.
The officials were afraid
Insiders evaluate the disclosure of passport numbers now as “a sign that Assad was serious.”. Initially, however, the skepticism was high. What is Assad intending? What does he want in return? In was intensively discussed in the Joint counterterrorism center in Berlin-Treptow. Perhaps the Syrian rulers even wanted to lay a false trail for hunting opponents of the regime.
Dictators use the Interpol manhunts for persecuting unwelcome opposition. With the so-called “Rotecken” -Steckbriefen, police authorities around the world are invited world to arrest the wanted person upon entry. The Assad regime has spurred over 25 manhunts of this type in recent years.
Despite such concerns the German security officials resolved to take the information on the stolen passports seriously. In spring 2015, the Federal Police issued an internal warning about jihadists with forged passports. The officials knew that not everyone was checked correctly at Europe’s external borders. They were scared.
On November 13, 2015 IS terrorists ended up killing 130 people in bars and a concert hall. At least two of the bombers had the falsified Syrian passports. They had come in camoflaged as refugees via Turkey and Greece into Europe. The documents that they used were on the list that Assad had warned the Europeans about. Ironically.
**I would have written “The West asserted almost everything in order to completely isolate Assad on the world’s political stage.”
***Comment on this remarkable sentence is left as an exercise for the reader! (Your translator spent 45 years as a college professor. Hard to stop…)