A lesson on relations between the Islamic State and the Syrian president.
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According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the war in Syria is very simple: President Bashar Assad’s regime is fighting the Islamic State militant group and associated terrorist organizations.
In Putin’s version of Syrian history, as laid out in his United Nations speech on Monday, the Islamic State was “forged as a tool against undesirable secular regimes” and propelled by foreign military support for Syrian rebels. In other words, Western nations helped create the Islamic State by rejecting Assad and naively supporting other opposition fighters whose existence actually boosts the Islamic State. Putin called this an “enormous mistake.”
“We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria,” Putin told the U.N. General Assembly.
Two days later, Russia launched airstrikes in Syria. Putin claimed the strikes targeted the Islamic State, but witnesses, analysts and simple geography indicate otherwise — the areas hit are held by other Syrian rebel forces.
As for Bashar Assad and his regime, they are barely fighting the Islamic State, either. A 2014 study of the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center database found just 6 percent of the Syrian regime’s counterterrorism operations directly targeted the extremist group.
Diplomats and analysts caution there is no evidence that the Islamic State is a creation or proxy of Assad’s regime. But they do work together to the extent that their interests overlap. For now, they share an interest in decimating the rest of the Syrian opposition, and they use the threat of each other to gather recruits and allies.
Moreover, Assad and his regime have been instrumental in advancing the rise of the Islamic State since the very beginning.
The extremist group was formed in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. It was then known as al Qaeda in Iraq, a local branch of the global al Qaeda network that waged a bloody insurgency against U.S. coalition forces.
Syria quickly emerged as the main conduit for foreign fighters who swelled the ranks of al Qaeda in Iraq. Militants from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere streamed through the country to join the insurgency. Records captured from al Qaeda in Iraq by U.S. commandos in 2007 showed that 90 percent of the group’s foreign fighters had entered Iraq via Syria, with the help of Syrian intelligence agents. The Assad regime also let jihadists out of prison and offered them military training to fight in Iraq, Syrian activists told U.S. diplomats according to Wikileaks cables.
“Assad and his intelligence services took the view that jihad could be nurtured and manipulated to serve the Syrian government’s aims,” Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, wrote in 2014 for the London Review of Books. He explained the Assad regime’s motive, referring in particular to the ultra-conservative Salafi jihadists:
Allowing the Salafists to go to Iraq was thought to be a good idea for two reasons: first, it got rid of thousands of the most aggressive Salafists with a taste for jihad, packing them off to a foreign war from which many would never return to pose a threat to Assad’s secular, minority-dominated government; second, it destabilised the occupation of Iraq and thwarted Bush’s quest to topple authoritarian regimes (everyone in Assad’s inner circle feared that Syria would be next).
In 2011, as peaceful protests erupted against Assad’s repressive regime, the government released more jihadists from prison. Syrian activists and terrorism analysts argue that this was a deliberate ploy to discredit the nonviolent opposition by fueling a violent insurgency.
Some jihadists saw the same scheme, but played along anyway. “The Islamists were sure that the Assad regime had offered the amnesty knowing full well that they would take up arms against it, and that kind of self-fulfilling prophecy … must have been what the government wanted,” Rania Abouzeid wrote in a 2014 Politico investigation.
“It would be jihadi [violence], and this would allow the regime to say to the world, ‘Look at the terrorists.’ We were aware of this,” one al Qaeda leader freed in 2011 told Abouzeid.
After the Syrian revolution erupted, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, sent an associate named Abu Mohammad al-Golani to Syria to set up a branch there. Golani linked up with the militants freed by Assad and established the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria called Jabhat al-Nusra. Baghdadi tried to join Golani’s group with his in a cross-border organization called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Golani and the head of al Qaeda rebuffed him, so Baghdadi took his organization out of the al Qaeda network, renamed it the Islamic State and declared himself caliph.
Whether by design or not, Syria’s war soon followed a trajectory that was very convenient for Assad, but utterly devastating for ordinary Syrians. Peaceful protests were crushed. The secular opposition was defeated at every turn. And Syria was flooded with jihadist militants from all over the world fighting the regime and each other.
Opposition activists say this was Assad’s plan all along. Iraqi officials told The Wall Street Journal last year that the Syrian president has privately admitted the same. Western officials point to evidence that the Islamic State and the Assad regime have at least tacit cooperation on the battlefield: They rarely attack each other, the regime buys oil from Islamic State territory, and the Islamic State cleared the way for regime forces to capture the city of Aleppo last year.
Syria expert and Brookings Institution fellow Charles Lister this week urged Western leaders not to fall for the machinations of Assad or Putin. The fact that Western officials areeven contemplating tempering their demand for Assad’s removal after Putin put military muscle behind the dictator, he said, shows they are “dangerously disconnected from Syria’s realities.”
“Well over 100,000 Syrian men currently fighting the Assad regime have sworn to do so until he is removed from power,” Lister pointed out. Helping Assad stay in power would “almost certainly spark a jihadist mobilization the like of which the world has never seen,” he said.