Analysis from the Jane’s Information Group released earlier this week confirms suspicions that the forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad have mostly left the Sunni radicals of the Islamic State to their own devices while concentrating their firepower on more moderate opposition fighters.
Just 6 percent of Syrian counterterrorism operations this year targeted the Islamic State, according to Jane’s, while 13 percent of Islamic State attacks in Syria targeted the regime.
“These figures suggest that the Islamic State and Assad’s security forces have embraced the clever strategy of ignoring each other while focusing on attacking more moderate opposition groups,” said the manager of the company’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, Matthew Henman.
“Assad is trying to downplay the Syrian revolution narrative and instead portray it as an Islamist insurgency against his government,” according to Henman. “This way, he can crack down on it with the indirect support of the West.”
The Islamic State, on the other hand, a particularly brutal jihadist group that fell out with the international terrorist organization Al Qaeda, “is looking to engineer a scenario where it is just them against Assad.”
The United States and allies launched airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in September after the group had overrun Iraq’s second city, Mosul, three months earlier. The fall of Mosul, and the recognition that many of Iraq’s Sunni Muslims sympathized with the Islamic State out of dissatisfaction with the Shia leadership in Baghdad, triggered the resignation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
America’s Arab and European allies do not participate in attacks on Syrian territory even though regional leaders have cautioned that the Islamic State insurgency and the civil war in Syria are intertwined.
Jordan’s king Abdullah II told America’s PBS television last week he had warned against arming radical opposition forces in Syria but said his advice was ignored.
It is believed Qatar and Turkey were less discriminate than the Americans, Jordanians and Saudis in the Syrian rebel groups they supported, seeing hastening’s Assad demise as the priority.
Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, argued in September it was Assad who “left space” for radical organizations like the Islamic State. “He was the one who prepared the ground for this,” Erdoğan said.
There are indications Assad not only “left space” for the Islamic State by refusing to engage it on the battlefield — as Jane’s analysis bears out — but that his regime actively helped it rise to prominence.
That is what a former Alawite member of Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate, one of the country’s myriad intelligence services, told Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper earlier this year. While many political prisoners and protesters involved in peaceful demonstrations against Assad’s government were kept in prison, fanatics and violent offenders were quietly released in late 2011, he said. “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades.”
Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper reported in January that the aim of the prisoner release “was to persuade the West that the uprising was sponsored by Islamist militants including Al Qaeda as a way of stopping Western support for it.”
This was part of a larger effort on Assad’s part to radicalize the opposition against him. The Atlantic Sentinel‘s Daniel DePetris reported two years ago that forces loyal to Assad, including Alawite militias, were perpetrating massacres against Sunni Arabs to drive the conflict “into just the type of sectarian onslaught that ruined [Iraq] five years earlier.”
Syria’s security establishment knew exactly how to bring about such an outcome for it played an integral part in the Iraqi civil war. It was Syrian intelligence that facilitated the movement of foreign jihadists into Iraq throughout 2006 and 2007. It maintained close contact with Islamist agitators and militants at the time and there is little reason to suspect those ties were cut.
It seems Syria’s spies copied this policy in their own country. A defector from the group that then called itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) said, “They grew long beards and joined. When I asked my emir, I was told they had defected from the regime. But this does not make sense because ISIS doesn’t accept defectors. They killed a friend of mine because they discovered he had been in the military as a normal soldier.”
The Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups based in Istanbul, made similar claims in February, saying several ISIS commanders were in fact former intelligence or military operatives. The group also pointed out that the Syrian Air Force had yet to bomb any of the Islamist group’s camps or headquarters in the northeast of the country while rebels in the south were routinely attacked by helicopter gunships and fighter jets.
The south and west of Syria are the most populated parts of the country so it makes sense for the regime to disproportionately focus on securing those areas. Except its oilfields are in the east so the regime ought to make some effort there as well.
The reason it doesn’t have to is that the regime is colluding with the militants to ship oil from under the territory they control, providing them with money to buy weapons and build the institutions they need for their “Islamic State”.
The same Telegraph story cited earlier said Assad “financed” the jihadists “by selling oil and gas from wells under their control to and through the regime.” The Guardian similarly reported in May that the local branch of Al Qaeda had “struck deals with government forces to allow the transfer of crude across the front lines to the Mediterranean coast.”
Hence the insistence of leaders such King Abdullah and President Erdoğan that the struggle against the Islamic state cannot be kept separate from the war in Syria. A strategy to defeat the Islamic State would be incomplete without a plan to remove Assad — or at least remove the support he gives the militants.