In a November 25 interview with the Financial Times, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad claimed that “representatives of some western countries have reached out to Damascus, seeking intelligence co-operation.” The paper pointed out that it could not confirm whether this was true or not but noted Meqdad’s “brimming confidence.”
For some months now, rumors have been making the rounds about a resumption of intelligence cooperation between certain European states and the government in Damascus. The story is that Western intelligence officials are courting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s generals to gain their help in fighting al-Qaeda, and some are hinting that this could be a prelude to the normalization of diplomatic relations as Syria nears a political compromise.
So far, no evidence for these claims has been presented, but that hasn’t stopped the rumors from spreading. They are now being retold by regime officials and diplomats,and, through them, making it into the mainstream press. For the government of Bashar al-Assad, of course, it is a propaganda coup. But how did these rumors begin, what are their sources, and what credibility, if any, could they have?
On May 7, 2013, an article was published on an online news site called Syria Truth, also known as al-Haqiqa in Arabic. The report said that according to “a well-informed British source,” General Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, had received a delegation of German intelligence personnel led by Gerhard Schindler, the head of the German federal intelligence service (known as BND for the abbreviation of its German name). According to Syria Truth, Schindler’s visit had the blessing of the U.S. government and sought—among other things—to resume security cooperation between Syria and the West against jihadi groups. Mamlouk was said to have been interested in the idea, but, riding high on recent military successes, he refused to move forward unless it was tied to a comprehensive political deal.
This would have been a very good scoop, and the idea was not entirely implausible. The jihadi menace is all too real, and European states are concerned about it for good reason. But the source, Syria Truth, is hardly a credible one. It is a notoriously unreliable news site run by a Europe-based former prisoner of conscience with a long history of fabricating political scandals. In 2004, for example, he was the one who informed credulous American Iraq war enthusiasts that Saddam Hussein had spirited his weapons of mass destruction across the border to Syria—thereby starting a rumor that still lives on the fringes of the American Right.
At first, the Syria Truth article attracted scant attention. Iran’s Press TV recycled the Schindler story, sourcing it to “a report,” but this did not really add to its credibility.
But on May 27, the Amman bureau of the German public broadcaster ARD—which is Berlin’s version of the BBC—ran a report headlined: “Secret Meeting in Damascus: What is the BND doing in Syria?” It didn’t mention Syria Truth by name, but that was clearly the source. To its credit, ARD did note that the information was impossible to confirm and that “intelligence circles” were denying that any such visit had taken place. The same day, Die Zeit, a German national newspaper, restated ARD’s information, with the same caveats, while also adding some further details from Syria Truth’s May 7 article.
These reports in respectable German media set off a stream of rumors in Syrian exile circles. They soon translated into, for example, an article in the Russian online tabloid Pravda.ru and another on the Middle East Monitor. By that time, the source had migrated from Syria Truth to “diplomatic sources,” and the story also involved a bizarre twist on the original plot: now, Gerhard Schindler was trying to arrange a deal between Syria and Israel that would allow Hezbollah to join Assad’s forces. Why exactly he would do that—well, it didn’t say.
However, just as the whispering about Schindler’s mystery visit to Damascus began to spread, another German paper poured cold water on the ARD and Der Zeit reports, apparently having discovered their origin with Syria Truth. On August 28, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a national center-right German newspaper, described the ARD report as based on “dubious sources” and again noted the denials of German intelligence. But of course, this did nothing to stop the rumors.
On August 21, the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus were attacked with nerve gas. On September 9, Russian-American negotiations began that ultimately gave birth to a September 14 agreement on dismantling Assad’s chemical weapons program.
With this, the course of the conflict changed, and so did Syria Truth’s May 7 report. A search on the Internet Archive website confirms that the original version spoke only of Western intelligence agencies seeking Syrian regime cooperation against jihadis. But sometime after the Ghouta attacks, the story was surreptitiously rewritten. In the version that is currently online—and still dated May 7—Schindler arrives with a much more ambitious U.S.-backed proposal to “strip Syria of its chemical weapons” in exactly the way that this would later happen.
The reason for this deceit seems to be that Syria Truth’s editor wants to seem more prescient than he really is. In articles dated September 9 and 12, the site points to its ostensibly four-month-old report (which, in reality, had just been retroactively doctored) as evidence that it had long ago uncovered the deal that was then in the making—thus, by implication, “proving” that the August 21 Ghouta attack was simply a deception engineered as political cover for Obama’s change of heart and his intention to let Assad remain in power.
But by this time, the Schindler story had grown far beyond its obscure origins on Syria Truth, and no one seemed to either notice the forgery or be tricked by it.
In mid-October, the Lebanese paper al-Safir (which leans to Assad’s side) did its own telling of the Schindler story. In this version, Damascus was receiving “one European security official after the other.” The head of German intelligence had made no fewer than “five visits to the region in the past months,” and a veritable caravan of intelligence officials from Belgium, Italy, Spain, and other Western nations was now cluttering the foyer of Ali Mamlouk’s office. According to al-Safir, Mamlouk had turned all these officials away, saying Syria would not restart security cooperation for as long as EU embassies in Damascus remained closed.
On the heels of al-Safir’s report, Syria’s Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar was quoted as saying that even Washington is now “seriously thinking about opening channels with Damascus” but that he didn’t feel reconnecting with the world’s sole superpower was particularly urgent. The implicit message was, of course, that the West needs Syria a lot more than Syria needs the West—and that Assad is growing stronger by the day. This was followed by Faisal Meqdad's comments in the Financial Times, which carried the same message about a regime assured of its own survival.
Then, on November 30, the Agence France-Presse finally broke the mold of these articles, which had so far all been quoting unidentifiable sources or Syrian officials. Now, a “Western diplomat” said that “the security services of these [European] countries want to resume cooperation with Syria that has been on hold for the last two years.” According to the diplomat, both France and the United Kingdom had already approached Mamlouk, who “was very tough” and responded, “We are ready for it, but do we want it? The answer is no. Not while your embassy remains closed.”
This rising tide of unverifiable reports about mysterious Western visitors to Damascus fits the regime’s own narrative very well. But what’s the truth of the matter? There are a few different possibilities.
First, of course, the rumors could be true. The major Western states are indeed worried about the jihadi problem, and many of them have just as clearly lost faith in Syria’s opposition. Then again, it seems much less likely that Mamlouk would feel so confident about the regime’s future that he would turn down the offer to reconnect with EU states over a symbolic reopening of embassies, but it is not impossible.
Second, perhaps some details of these stories are true but not all. The original May 7 report on Syria Truth doesn’t inspire any confidence at all, particularly not since we know that its author later added new falsehoods to it. Yet, independent of this, some Western intelligence agencies could still have decided to reconnect with Assad’s men, perhaps when a Geneva-style peace deal began to seem more likely. If the end goal is a compromise that preserves the security apparatus anyway, why not try to reap the fruits early on?
But a third possibility is that this is all a hoax and an exercise in psychological propaganda. Beyond the assertions of an unnamed “Western diplomat,” there is no evidence for any of these claims, and surely the Assad regime has reason to try to convince the world that it is breaking out of its isolation. If so, all this noise could be the result of one great whispering game, where Syria Truth’s original ruse has been enriched with new details every time it has been retold by journalists, diplomats, exiles, and spooks and where the rumors about Assad’s increasing international leverage have been fed by the regime itself at every turn. This, too, seems completely plausible.
Many partisans of the Syrian war are, of course, likely to have decided which of these possibilities is true even before having finished this article. But the rest of us might be better served by trying to find out—and by not trusting sensational reports one way or the other until a reporter has dug up some real evidence.
(I’m thankful to Emily Dische-Becker for help with German-language research and translations. – AL)
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