The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has reportedly funded and worked with al-Qaeda-linked fighters in the country in a bid to counter moderate rebel forces and tarnish the uprising's image, according to new allegations by Western intelligence agencies, rebels, and al-Qaeda defectors, The Daily Telegraph newspaper has reported.
Sources told the UK-based newspaper that the aim of the double game played by Assad was to convince Western countries that the Syrian uprising was sponsored by "Islamist militants" in order to hinder international support for it.
"Jabhat al-Nusra, and the even more extreme Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS), the two al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria, have both been financed by selling oil and gas from wells under their control to and through the regime, The Daily Telegraph quoted an anonymous intelligence source as saying.
"The regime is paying al-Nusra to protect oil and gas pipelines under al-Nusra’s control in the north and east of the country, and is also allowing the transport of oil to regime-held areas,” the source was quoted as saying. “We are also now starting to see evidence of oil and gas facilities under ISIS control."
The Daily Telegraph also reported that Syrian military defectors and rebels said that the government "deliberately released militant prisoners" who joined the extremist groups that are combating moderate rebel forces.
"Assad’s vow to strike terrorism with an iron fist is nothing more than bare-faced hypocrisy," an intelligence source said. "At the same time as peddling a triumphant narrative about the fight against terrorism, his regime has made deals to serve its own interests and ensure its survival.”
Syrian activists reportedly said they witnessed the government freeing al-Qaeda members from prison as part of an amnesty to "promote his argument that the revolution was made of extremists".
"One former inmate said he had been in prison with "Abu Ali" who is now the head of the ISIS Sharia court in the north-eastern al-Qaeda-run city of Raqqa. Another said he knew leaders in Raqqa and Aleppo who were prisoners in Sednaya until early 2012," the Telegraph reported.
"These men then spearheaded the gradual takeover of the revolution from secular activists, defected army officers and more moderate Islamist rebels."
Aron Lund, editor of a website, Syria in Crisis, used by the Carnegie Endowment to monitor the conflict, was quoted by the paper as saying: “The regime has done a good job in trying to turn the revolution Islamist."
"The regime claims that it released the prisoners because Assad had shortened their sentences as part of a general amnesty. But it seems to have gone beyond that. There are no random acts of kindness from this regime."