In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Nawaf Fares, a senior Syrian diplomat who defected to the rebel side asserted that the Assad regime was responsible for a major act of terror in Damascus, which was blamed at the time on al-Qaida.
The former Syrian ambassador to Iraq left Syria last week.
In the interview with Telegraph correspondent Ruth Sherlock, Fares claimed that the regime set up the bombing of a military intelligence headquarters in al-Qazzaz, ensuring that personnel at the base absented themselves minutes before the explosion, and that the only casualties were civilians.
“All these major explosions,” Fares told the Telegraph, “have been perpetrated by al-Qaida through cooperation with the security forces.”
A degree of scepticism is useful, of course, in evaluating Fares’s statement. He is a newly minted enemy of the regime, and has an interest in blackening its name.
But while the cynicism that would enable a regime to deliberately target its own population may seem shocking, it is in fact entirely in accord with the past practice of the Assad regime.
Indeed, the skillful use of jihadi organizations as tools of policy is one of the hallmarks of the Syrian dictatorship.
As Fares himself notes in the interview, during the Sunni insurgency against US forces in Iraq, Syria opened its border with Iraq to jihadis wishing to enter the country and take part in the fighting.
Damascus airport became a central hub for Sunni Islamists from across the region, who were ferried from there to the Iraqi border.
At the same time, Assad sought to present himself as an ally of the US in the war against terror, and as a “secular” opponent of Islamism.
Similarly, in Lebanon, Damascus has long made use of Sunni jihadis for its own purposes. In recent years, the most well-known instance of this was the emergence of the Fatah al-Islam organization in the Palestinian Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.
This mysterious group was led by one Shaker al-Abssi, a former inmate of a Syrian jail who for no apparent reason was freed and then turned up in Lebanon.
Fatah al-Islam engaged in violence against the Lebanese army and UN peacekeepers in 2007. The group was later crushed by the Lebanese armed forces in Nahr al-Bared, in a standoff in which around 400 people died.
Many analysts, noting Abssi’s unexplained early exit from jail, saw the organization as an element in Syria’s broader campaign to destabilize Lebanon following the end of Syria’s occupation of the country in 2005.
Even in Syria itself, prior to the uprising, the Assad regime also made use of puppet Sunni Islamist groups.
The Jund al-Sham group, for example, was widely considered to be controlled and manipulated by the regime.
One of the regime’s known methods regarding Sunni Islamists who it wishes to make use of has been to first incarcerate them, and then after a suitable period of time to offer them the possibility of freedom in return for action on behalf of the authorities.
All of which brings us back to the present day, and to the bombs in Damascus.
55 people died in the two car bombings at the military intelligence building at Qazzaz.
Another 400 were injured.
Syrian officials at the time tried to blame al-Qaida-linked elements for the attack. They pointed to the Jabhat al-Nusra organization as the likely perpetrator.
Much media coverage subsequently speculated that al-Qaida was entering the rebellion.
This appears to have been the goal of the operation.
If Nawaf Fares is to be believed, the intention of the regime was to cast the rebellion against it as an Islamist insurgency, and thus to chip away at western and international support and sympathy for the rebels.
In pursuit of this goal, Assad appears to have been prepared to deliberately murder a large number of his own civilians – including many who were presumably his supporters.
This should come as no surprise. The Assad regime is by its own admission currently engaged in a battle for survival.
It has throughout its existence made use of the very darkest methods taught to it by its trainers and backers in the intelligence services of the then-communist police states of eastern Europe.
It has never flinched before assassinating and terrorizing its enemies. It now appears that it also regards its own people, and even its own supporters as entirely dispensable and disposable in pursuit of its objectives.
As the regime’s fortunes recede further, it is likely that similar and even more shocking revelations than those detailed by Nawaf Fares will come to light.