Trump Seems to Realize Assad Is No Ally Against Islamic State

American president Donald Trump reviews troops at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, February 6
American president Donald Trump reviews troops at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, February 6 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

It appears to have dawned on Donald Trump that a pact with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad against the Islamists in his country makes no sense.

“It’s very, very possible, and, I will tell you, it’s already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” the American president told reporters in Washington after it emerged that Assad’s troops had again deployed chemical weapons. Read more

Political Dynasties and Their Discontents

Members of the Bush family watch a sports game at the White House in Washington DC, June 3, 2001
Members of the Bush family watch a sports game at the White House in Washington DC, June 3, 2001 (George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

Political dynasties have always been a big part of human civilization and today is no exception.

In the United States, of course, the rise of Donald Trump (and Bernie Sanders) was at least partially a reaction to the dynastic, Clinton-versus-Bush election that only last year most Americans were expecting to get.

Among other things, Jeb Bush’s candidacy split the non-evangelical portion of the Republican establishment in two, preventing it from coalescing around Marco Rubio early on and thus leaving an opening for Trump to force his way into. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, meanwhile, may even leave the door open for Trump to become president, however unlikely and unappealing that may be. Read more

Let’s Not Fall into Assad’s and Putin’s Trap in Syria

A young man holds up a portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, August 21 2010
A young man holds up a portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, August 21 2010 (Beshr Abdulhadi)

Since the start of the uprising against him, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has maintained that all his opponents are fanatics and terrorists. His Russian ally, Vladimir Putin, agreed and reiterated his position in interviews and at the United Nations this week.

What the two are saying boils down to this: Without Assad’s firm hand, Syria has descended into violence. Hence, the world better support Assad to stop the mayhem. The alternative is the barbarism of Al Qaeda and the self-declared Islamic State.

With an estimated 230,000 dead and half of Syria’s population displaced, Westerners may be forgiven for thinking they’re right.

Problem is, Assad isn’t fighting Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Worse, as the Atlantic Sentinel has reported, there is evidence his regime helped create the latter. Read more

Will America Talk with Syria’s Assad or Not?

American secretary of state John Kerry answers questions from reporters in Montreux, Switzerland, March 4
American secretary of state John Kerry answers questions from reporters in Montreux, Switzerland, March 4 (State Department)

Four years into Syria’s civil war, the United States may have come round to the view that President Bashar al-Assad needs to be part of a political solution.

Despite earlier insisting that Assad “must go,” Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS News on Sunday, when asked if the United States would be willing to speak with Assad, “We have to negotiate in the end.”

The State Department rushed to clarify that Kerry did not mean direct negotiations with Assad.

“By necessity, there has always been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of this process,” a spokeswoman said. “It has never been and would not be Assad who would negotiate. And the secretary was not saying that today.”

Maybe not. But it seems rather hardheaded to continue to exclude the Syrian dictator from any effort to mediate an end to the conflict in his country.

The United States believe Assad “lost legitimacy” when he started killing his own people but not all Syrians agree. Many minority Alawites and Christians have stuck with him for fear of a radical Sunni takeover. By Assad’s design, the peaceful protests that started in 2011 morphed into a fanatic, sectarian uprising that is dominated by violent Islamists — primarily the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front and the self-declared Islamic State. Both groups have been targets of American airstrikes in Iraq as well as Syria.

Nor do all powers agree that Assad should step down. Iran is his ally. To an extent, so is Russia. China still considers Assad to be Syria’s legitimate leader.

China and Russia have used their vetoes in the United Nations Security Council to forestall any international military intervention in Syria. If world powers are to find the much-desired political solution to the Syrian crisis, the views of China and Russia cannot be ignored.

Americans’ outrage is not without cause. Assad’s henchmen have indiscriminately and purposefully targeted civilian areas, using crude and deadly barrel bombs as well as chemical weapons, withheld food and medical aid from Syrians in need, executed rebel sympathizers and systematically raped, tortured and killed detainees. But Assad is also a major party to the conflict.

Unless the United States are willing to impose a “political solution” on Syria on their own — meaning, intervene in the conflict with force — it is difficult to see how Assad can be altogether sidelined.

Analysis Confirms Suspicions Assad Helped Islamic State

A Polish Su-22 fighter-bomber, also in service with the Syrian Air Force, takes part in an airshow, June 30, 2013
A Polish Su-22 fighter-bomber, also in service with the Syrian Air Force, takes part in an airshow, June 30, 2013 (Bomberpilot)

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.

Bashar Assad: Root of Islamic State’s Evil

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad visits Moscow, Russia, January 25, 2005
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad visits Moscow, Russia, January 25, 2005 (AFP/Getty Images)

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in an interview with America’s PBS earlier this week he still considers his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, as much a threat to the Middle East as the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State. It was Assad who “left space” for terrorist organizations like it, he said. “He was the one who prepared the ground for this.”

Surely, Erdoğan’s resentment has something to do with his failure to rein in Assad despite cultivating a close personal relationship with him in the years preceding the Syrian conflict. When Assad refused to heed Erdoğan’s calls for political reform, Turkey went on to support the largely Sunni uprising against the Syrian dictator.

But that doesn’t mean Erdoğan is wrong. There are, in fact, many indications Assad not only “left space” for the Islamic State, and radical Islamist groups like it, 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 also reported that the regime “deliberately released militant prisoners to strengthen jihadist ranks at the expense of moderate rebel forces. The aim 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.”

John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, recognized as much earlier this year when he said of Assad’s clandestine support for terrorist organizations, “He’s been doing this for months, trying to make himself the protector of Syria against extremists.”

This was part of a larger effort on Assad’s part to radicalize the opposition against his regime. 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.

That hasn’t changed. The Syrian army hardly operates in the northeast, if at all. That might appear to make some military sense, given that Syria’s economy and population are concentrated in the west. Except its oilfields are in the east.

It turns out the Assad 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 says 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 in some areas, the terror group known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is a branch of Al Qaeda, had “struck deals with government forces to allow the transfer of crude across the front lines to the Mediterranean coast.”

No wonder Erdoğan insisted that the situation in Iraq, where the Islamic State has made significant territorial gains in recent months, prompting military intervention from neighboring Arab countries and the United States this week, cannot be seen separately from the situation in Syria. A strategy to defeat the Islamic State, it seems, would be incomplete without a plan to remove Assad — or at least remove the support he provides to it.

Assad Hails “Turning Point” in War, Rebels Advance on Latakia

Portraits of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, April 28, 2008
Portraits of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, April 28, 2008 (James Gordon)

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said on Sunday that the civil war in his country was at a “turning point.” At the same time, opposition fighters were advancing on his Alawite homeland in the northwest of Syria.

Speaking at Damascus University, Assad “pointed out that there is a turning point in the crisis in Syria in terms of the continuous military achievements … by the army and armed forces in the war against terror,” state news agency SANA reported.

Assad, who first came to power in 2000 after the death of his father, is standing for reelection in July.

As recently as November, Syrian officials admitted the civil war was at a stalemate when neither the regime nor the disparate rebel forces seemed capable of breaking the deadlock. Since then, loyalist troops have steadily reconquered the territory between the capital Damascus and the city of Homs to the north, once a hotbed of rebel activity. That has given them a secure supply line into the homeland of Assad’s tribe, an area that had largely escaped fighting up until three weeks ago when rebels moved south from Turkey.

Rebels are now fighting in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, bringing the country’s main port of Latakia within their range. The city is the main hub for an international effort to ship out Syria’s chemical weapons by the end of this month — a deadline the regime looks likely to miss.

The northwestern provinces of Syria are the main recruiting ground for Assad’s core praetorian guard units who have proved to be among the most effective in combatting the rebellion.

Alawites in the area have largely stood by the Syrian leader through three years of civil strife. As the conflict has taken on a sectarian character, many now fear reprisals from Sunni Muslims who are the country’s majority population but were shut out of power for decades.

In August of last year, Alawite villagers near Latakia were attacked by Syrian Islamist and foreign jihadist fighters.

Earlier, reports had surfaced that Alawite militias were eradicating Sunni towns in the an-Nusayriyah Mountains, raising suspicion that the regime was carving out a homogenous enclave for the group.