The February 2006 riots following the publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper killed over 100 people and showed the West the danger of offending Muslim sensibilities. New documents obtained by WikiLeaks now show that the Syrian government was actively stoking these flames as a way of frightening its enemies, winning its own credibility in the Muslim world and discouraging the West from promoting democracy in the Middle East.
It was obvious from the beginning that terrorist-sponsoring regimes were trying to promote the outrage. Angry crowds formed in Lebanon, Iran, Gaza City and Damascus that attacked the Danish and Norwegian embassies and burned European flags. As Fox News reported at the time, “few believe the protestors could have pulled off such a brazen act without tacit government consent.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes, and the world ought to call them on it.” Diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks now reveal that the riots were more of an instigated event than previously acknowledged and was not a spontaneous outburst of Muslim outrage around the world.
In the days leading up to the large demonstrations in Damascus, the Syrian government ordered the country’s Grand Mufti to “issue a strongly worded directive to the imams delivering Friday sermons in the mosques of Damascus.” Ammar Sahloul, a businessman suspected of being an agent of the Syrian government with close ties to the Grand Mufti, began sending out text messages at this time to organize the demonstrations and played an important role in making them happen.
The documents explain that banners put up in the Rawda Square of Damascus by the demonstrators were “obviously” put up with the Assad regime’s permission, as the security forces had immediately removed other banners such as ones promoting a Muslim-Christian interfaith event in the past because such banners require government approval. The Syrian security forces stood by as the Danish and Norwegian embassies were attacked by the rioters but then intervened to protect the French one, the cable says.
At this time, Iranian state television was describing the publication of the Mohammed cartoons as an insult to Islam by the Danish government. Supreme Leader Khamenei addressed the country to call the cartoons a “Zionist plot” and a top Iranian official said the West had published them to “test” Muslims to see how they’d react. Hezbollah and Hamas likewise told Muslims it was their duty to join the demonstrations and said the punishment for insulting Mohammed is death.
The riots then ended when, according to a Sunni sheikh in Syria, “the message had been delivered.” The source cited in the document says the Assad regime was trying to send two messages, one to the Muslim world and one to the West. “To the Islamic street all over the region, the message was that the SARG [the Syrian government] is protecting the dignity of Islam,” the source says. To the West, it was, “This is what you will have if we allow true democracy and allow Islamists to rule.” The Syrian government was trying to win legitimacy in the eyes of the Islamists, while at the same time using those Islamists to scare the West away from promoting pro-democracy forces in the region.
The Syrian government has long tried to convince the West that it’s only choice is to either accept the secular Assad regime or permit Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood to take over. The regime goes to great lengths to make sure genuinely democratic, anti-Islamist voices are not heard and cannot offer themselves as a third alternative. An example of this is an extremist Syrian cleric named Abu Qaqa, who was assassinated in 2007 and his funeral was attended by Syrian Baath Party officials.
His right-hand man, Abu Ibrahim, believes he was an agent of the regime. Ibrahim says that two weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Qaqa and his followers openly celebrated in the streets. The Syrian security forces briefly arrested and released them. By 2002, anti-American, Islamist rallies led by Qaqa and those like him were openly assembled and even attended by members of the security forces and government officials. He also became involved in efforts backed by the Syrian government to support insurgents and terrorists in Iraq.
The Syrian regime allowed and even promoted these demonstrations, refusing to arrest Qaqa even as he called for an Islamic state, in order to send the same message as the one outlined in the cable released by WikiLeaks. The illusion that the current government is the only barrier that can stop an Islamist takeover of Syria is essential to the Assad’s regime survival. The Muslim Brotherhood may be an enemy of Assad, but it is a useful enemy that is helping ensure his power.
One of the Assad regime’s goals in promoting the riots was to discredit the pro-democracy agenda of the United States. The U.S. has been mostly silent on behalf of Syria’s freedom fighters. Assad has gotten what he wanted, guaranteeing that he’ll use such methods in the future.