There has long been speculation in Syrian oppositionist circles that the regime was colluding with the Qaeda-type forces in the insurgency, to shore-up its own base by frightening the minorities and to ward off external help to the rebellion from the West.
Regime funding Salafi-jihadists by splitting oil revenues
The first major mainstream report confirming this came in January 2014 from Ruth Sherlock in the Telegraph. The Bashar regime “has funded and co-operated with al-Qaeda in a complex double game even as the terrorists fight Damascus,” the article noted. Co-operating with both Jabhat an-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the regime has “financed” the jihadists “by selling oil and gas from wells under their control to and through the regime“. By the reckoning of this report, this began in the “spring of 2013,” when Nusra seized the most lucrative oil fields in Deir Ezzor. “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 said. “We are also now starting to see evidence of oil and gas facilities under ISIS control.”
Open-source evidence of this collusion on oil goes back to January 2013. Nusra captured Mayadin, Deir Ezzor:
“took control of … al-Ward oil and gas field … They control the resources, which gives them power. … Residents of Mayadin said that al-Nusra has been transporting crude oil in large tankers to [Deir Ezzor City], 28 miles … to the north, where the government still has a presence. They say that the local authorities in [Deir Ezzor] are so stretched that even they will buy oil off the group Damascus says are terrorists.”
Another piece—much overlooked at the time—came in the Guardian in May 2013. The E.U. lifted some sanctions in April 2013, and this accelerated the trend where the Salafi jihadists turned guns on the rebellion and took over strategic zones in the liberated areas, empowering itself against the moderates and giving it access to resources that could empower it even further. On the Northern and Eastern Fronts, where al-Qaeda and its bastard children would emerge as such a powerful force, the fighting had virtually stopped—against the regime. “Nusra has struck deals with government forces to allow the transfer of crude across the front lines to the Mediterranean coast,” the Guardian noted. An Ikhwani-linked rebel told the Guardian:
“The Syrian regime itself is paying more than 150m Syrian lire [£1.4m] monthly to Jabhat an-Nusra to guarantee oil is kept pumping through two major oil pipelines in Baniyas and Latakia. Middlemen … facilitate the deal and transfer money to [Nusra].”
A “[W]estern diplomat” added:
“‘We understand that in Deir Ezzor, it’s a bit of a mix. Al-Nusra is there and there is sometimes co-operation with the regime’. A former [Syrian oil] executive said … a single shipment could earn a profit of up to $10,000 (£6,600). He added that al-Nusra and other jihadist groups were using much of the money to win hearts and minds in areas they have captured, such as al-Raqqa city“.
The benefit to al-Qaeda of the oil trade was two-fold: it allowed them to expand their influence in liberated areas with food-for-fundamentalism campaigns and to engage in dawa (missionary work), especially with children; and they could pay their fighters and thus did not need to loot, which endeared them to the population given how badly the FSA-type rebels were being made to behave in many zones. One might add on the latter point that these increased funds and weapons allowed Nusra and ISIS to draw in non-ideological recruits who were determined to be done with the dictatorship—and of course once inside the group they could be radicalised, and made to reflect on the “help” the Salafi-jihadists were giving the Syrian people as against the neglect of the West.
Some would claim that this was merely the war economy: rebels in the Congo, after all, collude with the State authorities, too, both to make a profit and to secure necessities one needs from the other. This explanation is more dubious though if the co-operation is shown to be selective.
If the regime needed the oil so much, it could make a priority of retaking it in the eastern deserts, where tribal politics and other splits would make a divide-and-conquer strategy relatively easy. But it doesn’t, rather suggesting the presence of the takfiris is more useful to them than the oil. The regime’s war machine is supplied with energy by Iran and Venezuela in defiance of international sanctions—and in Iran’s case by some very circuitous routes—but this seems to be worth it to the regime. There are also doubts, or have been, about how desperate the regime actually is for oil: it reported at one stage that it was shipping oil out to China. In short, the regime has no military necessity in this transaction at all: the only force that gains any benefit that it could not achieve some other way is the Qaedaist one. But the presence of the Salafi-jihadists as the most visible force is extremely helpful to the regime.
Regime released Salafi-jihadists—Syrian and foreign—at the beginning of the uprising
This propaganda campaign to have the zealots as the visible face of the insurgency began right at the beginning of the uprising:
“[T]he 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.”
[Updated] In March, May, and June 2011, the regime turned loose from its prisons violent jihadists while continuing to repress peaceful, secular activists, arresting some (like Yahia Sharbaji) and murdering others (such as Ibrahim Qashoush and Ghiyath Matar). The March 26 “amnesty,” eleven days after the uprising began (at that stage a protest movement), freed 260 men, fourteen of them Kurds, the other 246 of them Islamists from the infamous Sednaya prison. Again around November 2011, the Assad regime “released a large number of alleged militant Islamists from its key security prison,” and Assad-controlled prisons in Lebanon freed jihadists at the same time. One of those released was allegedly Abu Musab as-Suri—though some doubt about this has now appeared—an extremely dangerous man with a record of terrorism on Western soil back to the 1980s who was entangled in the network that massacred the users of the Spanish subway system on March 11, 2004.
Abu Musab is probably the key ideologue at the present time for Nusra: a “pragmatist” who learned the lessons of total slaughter from the Muslim Brotherhood’s showdown with Hafez al-Assad and the Algerian bloodshed—he was one of the first to denounce the Armed Islamic Group (GIA)—and who now advocates for incrementalism and building consensus in creating an Islamic State, as against the ostentatious zealotry of ISIS.
[Updated] Among those who certainly were released by Assad was Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), who became a senior ISIS leader and one of its most hardline and vociferous promoters and supporters. Released prisoners like Atheer, plus the cells left over from Assad’s use of ISIS’s predecessor against Coalition forces in Iraq (see below) and the secret advanced party ISIS sent into Syria in the summer of 2011 combined to form Nusra as ISIS’s Syrian wing in late 2011, formally announced in January 2012.
The leaders of most of the major Salafist insurrectionist units were released by the regime in 2011. Hassan Abboud (Ahrar a-Sham), Zahran Alloush (Liwa al-Islam/Jaysh al-Islam), and Ahmed Abu Issa (Suqour a-Sham) were in the same cellblock in Sednaya, a prison described as a “breeding ground” for jihadists by a cleric who used to oversee the place. Even second-level Salafist groups like Liwa al-Haq, important on the Homs Front, benefited from this: it is led by Abderrahman Suways, a former paratrooper who had been in jail for twelve years when he was released in the spring of 2011.
“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,” said an Alawi defector from the Military Intelligence Directorate. “[T]he regime let them go very deliberately.” Another colleague added: “You release a few people and you create the violence. It’s contagious.” Weapons were made available to the most radical anti-Assad forces in key contested zones. “This is not something I heard rumours about, I actually heard the orders … These orders came down from [Military Intelligence] headquarters Damascus,” the intelligence officer adds.
In the most literal sense, the regime picked its opponents.
The Assad regime’s use of foreign Salafi-jihadists to attack the New Iraq and Lebanon
The reason the Sunni terrorists have had such an easy time establishing themselves in Syria is that the “Syrian intelligence apparatus has long cultivated ties with these groups; moreover, it has solidified robust logistics networks that facilitate jihadist activity“.
The House of Assad has had an extremely long record with terrorism, including against Europe. In April 1982, as part of Hafez al-Assad’s shadow war with Saddam Hussein, the Syrian regime bombed a crowded street in Paris to try to change France’s policy away from its pro-Saddam tilt in the then-ongoing war against Assad’s ally, Iran. On April 17, 1986, in an episode later called the “Hindawi affair,” a Jordanian, Nezar al-Hindawi, put a bomb in the luggage of his fiancé, an Irishwoman named Anne-Marie Murphy, as they boarded an El Al flight at Heathrow bound for Tel Aviv. Margaret Thatcher in her memoirs (p. 510) refers to the “clear links” al-Hindawi had with the Assad government. Britain would sever diplomatic relations with Damascus later that year when upon finding “conclusive evidence” that al-Hindawi’s bomb had been constructed in the Syrian Embassy in London. Assad signed on to the coalition to evict Saddam from Kuwait, but the U.K. still did not have formal relations with Syria and Mrs. Thatcher still (p. 823) “disliked the regime and had no illusion about its continued willingness to employ terrorism“.
While to some this will seem surprising, given the Assad regime’s pretensions to secularism, the Assad regime also has longstanding links to Islamist terrorism, most notably HAMAS and Hizballah. The Syrian rebellion has caused some consternation for HAMAS, which is strongly backed by Iran, and Tehran strongly backs Assad. HAMAS’s “political wing” had been headquartered in Damascus for many years, but HAMAS publicly broke with Assad in 2012. But Assad remains the lifeline for the one true Arab offspring of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hizballah has recognized this fact by committing ever-increasing resources to the war in Syria to keep Assad’s regime alive.
Numerous members of the George W. Bush administration have testified to the Assad regime’s role in funnelling Salafi-jihadists into the New Iraq to make war on constitutional government and the Shi’ites: Douglas Feith (p. 490), L. Paul Bremer (p. 105 & 198), Donald Rumsfeld (p. 327), Richard Cheney (p. 437 & 470), and the President himself (p. 421). During the invasion of Iraq, heavy traffic was seen moving out of Iraq into Syria. Among the materiel were blank Iraqi passports, which were then given to jihadists in Syria who then flew direct into Baghdad.
[Updated] In Aleppo, in 1999, a Salafi agitator named Mahmoud Gul al-Aghasi (Abu al-Qaqa) had been set up (p. 32) in al-Sakhour Mosque by the regime’s military-intelligence service. After a decade or so of intensive suffocation of Islamism following the unmerciful repression at Hama in 1982, the Assad regime began to relax some restrictions on religious expression in the 1990s and even to foster a loyalist clergy that would promote a quietist version of the faith, and this accelerated after Bashar took power. Inevitably, more virulent forms of the faith also had more space—and the regime wasn’t exactly opposed to this, it helped present the dictatorship as the best alternative to the minorities and it helped to contain the growing Islamist movement by lessening the area of grievance the Islamists felt against the State. It was this environment that al-Aghasi, a Kurd who had graduated from Damascus’ faculty of shari’a, and his deputy Abu Ibrahim entered in the late 1990s, forming an increasingly assertive paramilitary movement they called Ghuraba al-Sham based in northern Aleppo.
In the wake of 9/11, al-Aghasi held a large festival celebrating the attacks, including showing off the military training Ghuraba were providing to their recruits and playing al-Qaeda videos on large screens; some of this festival was shown on State television. In the context of Syria, this was extraordinary: even with the relaxation of the immediate post-Hama anti-religious measures, the Assad regime still maintained a fierce antagonism to, and active suppression of, expressions of religio-political ideology, and this was by no means the only time al-Aghasi had shown his support for international jihad.
Muhammad Habash, a former Syrian MP who headed the de-radicalization program at Sednaya in 2008, recalled later (p. 105) thinking after hearing one of al-Aghasi’s incitements: “With a sermon like that, an imam would usually spend the rest of his life in prison, along with his family and relatives and those who attended the sermon.” The only time al-Aghasi was ever arrested was for several hours after the 9/11 festival because the incident had caught the attention of some outside Syria. Al-Aghasi had been allowed to recruit without the State interfering because he wasn’t “saying anything against the government” and had focussed his wrath on the West. Al-Aghasi’s collusion with Assad’s intelligence services allowed the regime to monitor the jihadi networks on its territory, and ultimately to co-opt them.
Al-Aghasi’s collaboration with the mukhabarat was at times barely-disguised. In late 2003, al-Aghasi told a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor that he was “working with the government” to oversee an Islamic revival in Syria. It was at this time that al-Aghasi traded his Afghan qamis for a suit and he accepted a regime sinecure in 2006. Despite this ever-more-flagrant move into the regime’s orbit, al-Aghasi began evolving towards populism, complaining about the corruption that dispossessed the poor. Who it was that ultimately struck down al-Aghasi outside his new mosque in the well-to-do Halab al-Jadida neighbourhood in September 2007 remains a mystery. This was during a period that the regime was somewhat cracking down on Islamist militancy as the problem it manipulated threatened to engulf them, too, and al-Aghasi’s barbed sermons could easily have exhausted the regime’s patience. But there were many mujahideen with friends or relatives betrayed to the mukhabarat by al-Aghasi, and many more who objected to a man who presented himself as a jihadi cleric being in the pocket of a “godless” regime.
At the very onset of the Iraq invasion in 2003, Ahmad Kuftaro, the State-appointed Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in Syria, declared (p. 103) it religiously obligatory on all Muslims to wage jihad in Iraq. After the invasion, al-Aghasi’s men went “door to door encouraging young men to cross the [Iraqi] border. Volunteers boarded buses that Syrian border guards waved through“. Ahmad Hassoun, who replaced Kuftaro as Assad’s grand mufti in September 2004, gave a sermon in Aleppo during the Second Battle of Fallujah praising “our brothers” and asking that god favour the jihadists as they “kill Americans”. (Hassoun would later gain some notoriety for a 9 October 2011 statement threatening the U.S. and “all of Europe” that the Assad regime would “set up suicide bombers who are now in your countries if you bomb Syria or Lebanon,” i.e. Hizballah.)
By March 31, eleven days into the invasion, the Saddam government itself admitted to having imported 5,000 jihadists—almost all of them crossing into Iraq through Syria, where British intelligence said 600 more foreign fighters were preparing to cross into Iraq. The day before, al-Jazeera filmed the arrival of yet more jihadists in Mosul from Syria and 1,000 more Palestinian jihadists would journey from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus into Iraq before the fall of Saddam. On April 1, it was reported that the British SAS had interdicted four busloads of jihadists as they moved from Syria into western Iraq carrying some of the 2,000 or so passports (at a minimum) the Assad regime had dispensed to foreign volunteers fighting to preserve Saddam’s rule. Via networks in Europe, the Syrian regime funnelled al-Qaeda members into Iraq from as early as 2003, and thereafter “[m]ost of the al Qaeda recruits who made their way to Iraq did so on commercial flights that landed at Damascus International Airport.” Foreign jihadists joining ISIS’s predecessor organization confessed to landing in Syria and being taken to a camp, run by al-Aghasi, that was “well-known to Syrian intelligence.” [Update ends]
“Once in Syria [al-Qaeda fighters] seek accommodations in hotels typically located near large markets or mosques frequented by foreigners, allowing [them] to blend into the general population,” one classified military report noted. “Within a few days facilitators contact the recruits and escort them to safehouses where they await onward movement into Iraq. The safehouses often are clustered in neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo, but also are in border towns such as Abu Kamal [al-Bukamal] and Qamishli.” Al-Qaeda fighters who had been wounded in Iraq, it added, sometimes “received treatment at al-Nur Hospital in Damascus.” There was a “network of training camps” in Deir Ezzor, where the senior Qaeda members “met regularly with Syrian military intelligence officials,” including Assef Shawkat, intelligence chief and Assad’s brother-in-law, killed in a bombing in July 2012.
A strong case-in-point is Badran al-Mazidi, better-known as Abu Ghadiya, a key al-Qaeda facilitator, who was struck down in the deserts of eastern Syria by a U.S. commando raid in October 2008. Personally appointed by Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, al-Mazidi was the “principal conduit for foreign terrorists heading into Iraq to join AQI,” a July 11, 2008, U.S. Embassy cable from Baghdad explained. (AQI refers to al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had in fact merged itself into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in November 2006. The U.S. regarded ISI as simply a front for AQI, however, so continued to use “AQI” as a descriptor; this not how ISI saw it.) Al-Mazidi’s “network continues to operate with the knowledge of the Syrian government,” the State Department’s cable adds. “Bashar al-Asad was well aware that his brother-in-law ‘Asif Shawqat … had detailed knowledge of the activities of AQI facilitator Abu Ghadiya“.
In September 2007, the U.S. had rolled up a network of jihadists in Anbar Province on the Iraq-Syria border in a town called Sinjar. The network had been funnelling foreign fighters into Mesopotamia. The U.S. captured five terabytes of documents, the so-called “Sinjar Records,” which remain the most complete record of the foreign Salafi holy warriors who descended on Iraq. Al-Mazidi was responsible for nearly all of these men getting into Iraq. In May 2007, Salafi-jihadists struck a U.S.-manned border post, an “operation [that] could not have been carried out without the acquiescence of Syrian officials at some level,” then-U.S. commander in Iraq David Petraeus wrote to Defence Secretary Robert Gates. And in January 2008 al-Mazidi sealed his fate: news came that he was seeking “100 American military uniforms,” meaning he had moved beyond logistics and smuggling to planning attacks—in all probability something on the order of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps/Asaib Ahl al-Haq raid on Karbala in January 2007. The only debate was whether it should be a drone or a Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operation.
In echoes of the Bashar regime’s stance on chemical weapons—we don’t have them so we can’t use them but we’ll give them up if you don’t launch air strikes—three weeks after al-Mazidi was killed then-British Foreign Secretary David Miliband met with the Syrian tyrant and demanded of him why he had not moved against al-Mazidi. Assad first denied any knowledge of al-Mazidi’s presence inside Syria and then complained of the violation of Syria’s sovereignty.
[Update] Hundreds of American soldiers were killed by Assad using ISIS as an instrument of his foreign policy. Many non-military American personnel were also killed by Assad’s collaboration with ISIS—and not just in Iraq. American courts found that the Syrian regime and Assad and Shawkat personally were responsible for providing “material support and resources” that enabled Zarqawi’s gang to capture and, in September 2004, behead Eugene “Jack” Armstrong and Jack Hensley, two American contractors working to help rebuild Iraq. Assad was also found liable in a U.S. court for ISIS’s bombing of the hotels in Amman in November 2005, which slaughtered sixty people, more than half of them from a Jordanian wedding party. The slain in Amman also included four Americans, one of them the Syrian-American film producer Moustapha al-Akkad. Still, Assad didn’t only use ISIS against the West.
When the bombs ripped through the Finance and Foreign Ministries in Baghdad on August 19, 2009, massacring 101 people and wounding more than 500—the most lethal terrorist attack in Iraq since the August 2007 attack on the Yazidis near Sinjar and one of the dozen or so deadliest attacks of the entire Iraq War—the fact that they had been orchestrated by the Assad regime in collaboration with ISIS’s predecessor was already known. Major General Hussein Ali Kamal, a secular Kurd who was the director of intelligence in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, a trusted figure by everyone, including the ruling Shi’a-led government and the Americans, had an agent wearing a wire in the meeting in Zabadani where Assad, ISIS, and elements of the fallen Ba’ath regime met directly to plot a terrorist strike not against the Americans, but against Iraqi government institutions. Kamal upped security and the conspirators noticed, changing their target. Only when the blasts went off did Kamal know he had been outwitted by the former regime, its jihadist allies, and their patron next door.
One of the orchestrators of the Baghdad bombings was Abu Amr Abd al-Hakim (Shaykh Issa al-Masri). Al-Hakim is an Egyptian cleric with extensive ties to al-Qaeda “Central” or “Core” (AQC) and the Haqqani network, who had lived in Afghanistan since 1995, as the Taliban began seizing large areas of the countries, and fled to Pakistan when the Taliban fell in 2001. By mid-2008, al-Hakim was making a nuisance of himself by publicising his views—more in line with Zarqawi’s than Osama bin Laden’s—on the need to attack the “near enemy,” providing religious legitimacy for the multiple assassination attempts against Pakistan’s ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, and the successful attempt on the life of Benazir Bhutto. The U.S. had targeted al-Hakim with a drone strike because of the danger he posed to an allied government three weeks before Bhutto was killed. Arrested in January 2009 by Islamabad, al-Hakim was then either let go or escaped and was in Damascus by June 2009 under the protection of Assad’s mukhabarat (secret police).
One of the men who helped al-Hakim bed down in Damascus was Sa’ad Ubayd al-Shammari (Abu Khalaf), who had replaced al-Mazidi as head of ISI’s Syrian facilitation network, which was overseen by Syrian intelligence, bringing in foreign fighters and suicide bombers, as Treasury sanctions noted in May 2009. Al-Shammari, who was also implicated in the August 2009 bombing—and the series of attacks on Iraqi State institutions that followed, tactically led by ISI’s Baghdad emir, Manaf al-Rawi—was killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid during a trip to Mosul on January 22, 2010. ISI was reeling by this time—and the situation would only get worse in the coming months as the senior and even mid-level leadership was picked apart.
Even among those who know about the Assad regime’s support to ISIS’s predecessors in Iraq, it is often held that this support ended after the al-Mazidi raid or after the terrorist strikes against the Iraqi Finance and Foreign Ministries in the summer of 2009. How, then, did ISI(S) revive so quickly once the Syrian uprising broke out? Because Assad’s support had never stopped and ISI(S) was drawing on this support to quietly rebuild in response to the Surge. Assad continued to support ISIS’s predecessors into at least 2012—after the Americans had left Iraq and after the uprising against Assad had begun and ISIS were trying to insert themselves into this revolutionary movement. Moreover, Assad’s use of ISIS’s predecessors and other Salafi-jihadists against the New Iraq was much more extensive than just al-Aghasi, and this infrastructure was available for ISIS to fall back on.
In the immediate aftermath of the Saddam Hussein regime, Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, Saddam’s deputy, and Muhammad Younis al-Ahmed, a senior Ba’athist, fled to Syria with inter alia the looted treasury of the fallen regime. Ad-Douri, with the full connivance of the Assad regime, supplied money and arms to all manner of insurgent groups in Iraq. Ad-Douri also exercised strategic guidance over the early insurgency and would maintain such influence over sections of the insurgency for years. Many of the early insurgent groups in Iraq were led by former regime elements (FREs)—soldiers, spies, and militiamen—whose goal was restoration. These FRE-led battalions were formed from the underground structure the Saddam regime had created to resist a repeat of the 1991 Shi’a Uprising, which accidentally laid the groundwork for a decentralized but coordinated insurgency after the regime fell. Degraded by the defeat in 1991 and the sanctions, the Saddam regime looked to provide itself some pillars of support. Ad-Douri set up essentially a criminal economy to evade the embargo and feed a patronage system of regime loyalists. Alongside this, Saddam looked for legitimacy in religion (and even came to believe it), intensifying his government’s already-Islamizing trends by starting the Faith Campaign in 1993, also run by ad-Douri. This meant mosques and religious orders were often the point at which this patronage was dispensed. Wary of the army, Saddam had deliberately weakened it by starving it of resources, instead empowering ultra-loyalist militias, notably the Fedayeen Saddam, loyal to the dictator not to the Iraqi State, which had also become increasingly Islamist as the 1990s wore on. (A notable contingent of Fedayeen fled to Syria: as late as 2007 Fedayeen personnel were operating the Assad-supervised terrorist training camps in eastern Syria.)
Ad-Douri’s early support system had no scrupulosity: he supplied both strands of the insurgency—the Ba’athi-Salafists and Jihadi-Salafists—with the means to fight Coalition forces and the new government, and Assad enabled and sought influence over both. The Ba’ath, in both Syria and Iraq, as pan-Arab parties, had each claimed to be the legitimate ruler of both countries. With the fall of the Iraqi Ba’athists it gave Assad a chance to assert this claim. There heretofore symbolic “Iraqi wing” of the Syrian Ba’ath Party, under Fawzi al-Rawi, provided “funds to Zarqawi’s network” and “met with Zarqawi’s lieutenants to discuss operations against the U.S. Embassy and Green Zone”. As well as “regularly” meeting with AQI representatives and running a charity that was in fact “a front for funding the [Zarqawi] network,” Treasury sanctions against several terrorist leaders in Syria noted in 2007, al-Rawi met, in 2004, at least twice with leaders of Jaysh al-Muhammad, one of the insurgent groups closest to ad-Douri, to provide material support. The only move Assad ever made against ad-Douri was an attempt to replace him at the head of the networks guiding the insurgency in Iraq with Younis, who had been co-opted by Damascus. In other words, Assad wanted to even more directly control the forces killing Western soldiers and Iraqi democrats. That both ad-Douri and Assad indiscriminately supported the insurgency in Iraq, including foreign-led outfits with an ideology that regarded ad-Douri (a Sufi) and Assad (an Alawi) as heretics should be no surprise: their connections with Zarqawi began before Saddam fell.
Zarqawi crossed into northern Iraq from Iran in April 2002 and moved to Saddam’s Baghdad in May 2002, depositing “more than a dozen” al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists, who were soon followed by more, including Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, and Abu Humam as-Suri. Having been “relatively free” to move around Saddam’s Iraq, Zarqawi went on a Levantine recruitment-drive. First, Zarqawi went (p. 17) to Ayn al-Hilweh, the Palestinian refugee camp in Saida in southern Lebanon, a hotbed of Islamist militancy and home to the Salafi-jihadist group Asbat al-Ansar that would sent volunteers to Zarqawi in Iraq.
Next, Zarqawi went to Syria, where he was allowed to recruit (a notable case is Taha Falaha, ISIS’s current speaker known as Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) and—in direct collaboration with the Assad regime—set up the “ratlines” that brought the foreign fighters to ISIS’s predecessor in Iraq for the entire length of the U.S.-led regency. Most importantly, Zarqawi assassinated U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman in October 2002 with the complicity (p. 106) of the Assad regime. The man who led the operation in Jordan was Shaker al-Absi, who would later emerge as the leader of a Lebanon based jihadi outfit, Fatah al-Islam.
Al-Absi was an asset of Assad’s security services. Al-Absi, a former colonel and pilot in the Syrian military, was among the founders of Fatah al-Intifada, which split from FATAH/PLO in 1983 and took the Syrian and AMAL side in the war of the camps. In 2000, al-Absi was arrested for smuggling weapons into Syria, receiving a sentence of three years in prison—in a country where the formal sentence for membership of the Muslim Brotherhood is death, usually commuted to twelve years. In reality, al-Absi—if he was ever arrested at all—was free before even that sentence was complete and was “protected by [Assad] and running a training camp in Syria for terrorists headed to Iraq,” according to U.S. court findings. It was at this time, while al-Absi was working under the protection of the Assad regime, that the Foley assassination took place.
Al-Absi and Zarqawi were among the six jihadists convicted in absentia and sentenced to death by the Jordanian government. The other four were: Muammar Ahmed al-Jaghbeer (Jordanian) and Muhammad Ahmed Tayourah, Ahmed Hussein Hassoun, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rahman Thaher (all Syrians). Four others were actually taken into Jordanian custody: a Libyan, Salem bin Suwayd, and a Jordanian, Yasser Furayhat, were sent to the gallows in Swaka prison south of Amman in March 2006; Muhammad Damas received fifteen years in prison; and Muhammad Amin was sentenced to six years in jail. All insisted they had been forced to confess.
It seems that at some point in late 2002 or early 2003, al-Absi was re-arrested and held for another two years or so, being released in 2005 and taking up a base in the Bekaa with the remnants of Fatah al-Intifada.
On May 20, 2007, in the worst act of violence since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, Fatah al-Islam attacked the army post at the entrance to Nahr al-Bared, leading to clashes that killed forty-one people, and sparked a near-four-month war. Throughout the entire siege there was an open line of communication between the Assad regime and Fatah al-Islam: a regime cleric named Fathi Yakan. When the conflict ended on Sept. 7, 400 people were dead, including all-but about thirty of Fatah al-Islam’s 200 fighters.
The destabilization of the government of Fouad Siniora, fighting to maintain Lebanon’s autonomy from Assad’s intelligence apparatus, which remained in Lebanon even after the expulsion of Syrian occupation forces, was in line with Assad’s foreign policy objectives, as was the movement of jihadis disenchanted with the Iraq front to a new theatre. The ability to make trouble in Lebanon also dissuaded people from co-operation with the tribunal into Rafik Hariri’s assassination. And finally Assad was, as ever, trying to gain a Western interlocutor. So much of Assad’s self-conception of his regime revolved around a foreign policy aimed at the West that said, “Just pick up the phone and talk to us,” which allowed the pretence that Syria was a regional linchpin. If Assad had something to actually talk to the Americans about, so much the better, and in this case he felt he had a deal: let Syria have Lebanon back, and maybe Assad could do something about the flow of suicide bombers into Iraq. The use of terrorism as the central instrument of Assad’s State policy—regionally and globally—should not be missed here.
Assad had arrested some of the Islamist militants in the 2006-2007 period, either as they flowed from Iraq to Syria or after they had been moved into Lebanon and Fatah al-Islam had been crushed. Amr al-Absi, a possible relative of Shaker’s who went on to be a very senior figure in ISIS, was one such militant taken into regime custody (he was also released as the uprising broke out in 2011). Others were re-re-exported from Lebanon back into Iraq. The Sinjar documents—covering the period August 2006 to August 2007—show the heaviest traffic of foreign fighters into Iraq from Syria after May 2007. By summer 2007, 100 foreign fighters were joining ISIS’s predecessor every month via Syria, a flow so heavy it required the appointment of a “border emir,” Abu Muthanna al-Ansari, who was killed on Sept. 11, 2007, during the raid that captured the Sinjar records.
Some reports have it that a low-level insurgency had begun in Syria in 2007 and was only really put down in 2010, but these attacks went un-reported because of a media blackout. Though still shrouded in much secrecy, one Islamist attack that is known about in this period is the Sednaya prison riot. Even here, however, the regime was ultimately responsible. On July 5, 2008, the Islamist prisoners at Sednaya rebelled, taking the facility out of regime control. After an initial error—with regime personnel captured by the prisoners, put in prison uniforms, and then accidentally killed by regime snipers—the Fourth Armoured Division, one of the regime’s most elite squads commanded by Bashar’s brother, Maher, moved in, killing up to sixty prisoners and restoring control over most of the prison. But the hardcore jihadis maintained control of a portion of the prison and still held hostages, which were traded for food as they planned a second revolt that erupted in December 2008. The disturbances were only quelled by a full-scale military operation in January 2009 that killed another forty or so people. Why had the Islamist prisoners rioted? Because, after the Assad regime had “coordinated with Damascus-based Fatah al-Islam elements to train the prisoners and transport them across the Iraqi-Syrian border,” as a 2010 U.S. cable noted, it had then arrested these men—while allowing some other jihadis to remain at large and exporting a third set to Lebanon. The inmates, to include Amr al-Absi, felt the regime “had cheated them,” and this resentment seems to have boiled over when harsh prison conditions were added on top.
The only for-definite, classical terrorist attack in the 2007-2010 time-period was the car bombing in Damascus in September 2008. This was not quite as murky as the attack on the U.S. Embassy in September 2006, blamed on the shadowy Jund al-Sham, which came at the height of Syrian intelligence moving jihadists from Iraq to Lebanon, and was in any case against an external target not a regime one, leaving open the question of who actually carried out that attack and why. Yet the 2008 attack remains mysterious all the same. The regime blamed Fatah al-Islam and the group was certainly bitter at the realization it had been used by Assad and then abandoned in Lebanon. Shaker al-Absi was reported alternately as captured or killed by Syrian security forces in late 2008, evidently at the end of his use, and has not been heard from since. Fatah al-Islam would later appear, at least in name, as a bit-player in the beginning of a jihadist trend in the Syrian insurgency in 2012. Whether blowback had begun before ISI sent its agents into Syria to form Jabhat an-Nusra in August 2011 we might never know.
In July 2009, through Lebanese intermediaries, Gen. Petraeus had warned Assad: “In time, these fighters will turn on their Syrian hosts and begin conducting attacks against Bashar al-Asad’s regime itself“. This is the most that can be said in Assad’s defence: that he has lost control of former terrorist assets that are now running amok in Syria. Even that is too much, however. The very presence of these people helps the regime’s narrative: the chaos created by the jihadists is the feature not the bug—after all they wouldn’t be there except that the regime put them there. The regime has staked its life on having a jihadist foe against which it could claim to be the defender of the minorities and the wider world. With Assad’s record it would not be very convincing for his government to claim to be the frontline in the War on Terror. With Assad having refused the option of ceasing assistance to ISIS just because they started to bite the hand that fed them it becomes ludicrous. [Update ends]
Consider the ostensible first suicide-bombing of the war, in Damascus, on December 23, 2011. There are reports that the perpetrators were two Iraqi women. Say it’s true. In February 2010, Ali Mamlouk, the head of the General Security Directorate (GSD) which oversees internal repression, told American interlocutors: “In principle, we don’t attack or kill [Islamic terrorists] immediately. Instead, we embed ourselves in [their networks] and only at the opportune moment do we move.”
This is an old, old story. One can look at the way the Jugoslav secret police (UDBA) used to penetrate émigré opposition networks (often terrorists but not always) and then create in-fighting with false-flags and other tactics of provocation, and in the confusion assassinate members so that by the late 1980s it had basically rolled up all opposition to Belgrade from among the diaspora. More pertinent to this predicament, one can look to Algeria, where rather than the regime’s agents destroying the terrorist network by penetrating it and killing its members, used the infiltrated State agents to direct the network to self-destructive behaviour.
What are the chances that a Police State as total as Assad’s, apparently able to quell a minor but violent Islamic insurgency in 2007-2010 because the Islamists were on so tight a leash, was unable, in late 2011 when the protest movement was only just beginning to militarise and only in Homs—Damascus and Aleppo stayed out of armed rebellion until July 2012—to keep track of foreign Islamic terrorists on its territory? At a minimum for this attack in Aleppo it has to be said that the regime’s pervasive apparatus of terror had, quite suddenly, developed a blip.
As it happens, this first bombing looks to have been wholly staged. But there have been other suggestive episodes where the regime appears to have allowed jihadist attackers a clear run. For example, Nusra managed to drive “through the front entrance” of the Syrian Armed Forces General Staff Headquarters in Umayyad Square in central Damascus on September 26, 2012, in a car bomb.
And here’s the clever bit: the ground-level security forces could have shot down the would-be suicide-killers and the result would be the same: there would have been evidence of jihadists, the minorities would be terrified, and the West wary of helping Assad’s opponents.
The regime also had low-tech means of disseminating its story that Islamic militants were its only foes. Activists have testified that when these early supposed-Nusra bombings went off, the regime paraded jihadist prisoners from Sednaya on State television and made them read a statement before the cameras.
Some agitprop was more blatant: in Midan, Damascus, in January 2012, all the “victims” of a “suicide bombing” were seen getting up when they thought the camera had gone off. This is likely not the only bombing that was outright staged—either did not take place at all, or there was a bombing but the regime carried it out.
Assad’s ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares, defected in June 2012, and in his testimony to the Sunday Telegraph he said:
“I know for certain that not a single serving intelligence official was harmed during that explosion [at Qazzaz in May 2012], as the whole office had been evacuated 15 minutes beforehand. All the victims were passersby instead. All these major explosions have been perpetrated by al-Qaeda through cooperation with the security forces.”
Fares’ credibility has been confirmed on every matter where it can be checked: Obama officials confirmed to CNN that his recounting of the raid against Badran al-Mazidi was exactly correct, and the definitive record of the Mesopotamian campaign, Michael R. Gordon and Wesley S. Morgan’s book ‘The Endgame,’ laid out above, corroborates Fares.
Mukhabarat direct infiltration of Islamist ranks
That there are regime agents within ISIS seems not to be in doubt. An ISIS defector said:
“I know men who were officers in the police and Syrian intelligence branches who are now in ISIS. 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.”
An ISIS jihadist who fell into rebel custody added: “We received orders from Commander Abu Anas al-Iraqi to bomb the train station [in Raqqa]. We were also ordered to fire on ambulances and civilians trying to reach the victims,” Abu Anas al-Iraqi leads an ISIS brigade in Raqqa Province. This sounds very suspiciously like the Algerian regime’s tactic of using the GIA to attack civilians to discredit the insurgency. “Abu Anas is financed directly by the regime, through Iran and Iraq. His brigade is specialised in kidnappings, car bombs and targeted assassinations of FSA members,” the ISIS detainee said.
Michel Kilo, probably the most well-known “old guard” oppositionist (and a Christian at that) said in January:
“There are photos that have been found of several emirs of ISIS with Bashar al-Assad. The pictures were taken before they became emirs in ISIS, when they were all officers in the Syrian special service. There are documents sent by the special service to ISIS telling them to capture or kidnap people in Raqqa and Jarabulus, and these documents will be published. And you will see how the regime fabricated these extremist groups that did not exist in our country at the beginning of the revolution. … We have officers who have defected from the special service who worked to create these terrorist organizations; people who used to work with al-Qaeda. They know the names and the dates and what they have done along with the directions they were given. All this is documented. … Ali Mamlouk defected one year ago, and he has documented this.”
Allowance made for rhetorical excess, this tallies with other reports.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), the formal political opposition body, has said that “several field commanders” of ISIS were “former military or intelligence officers” of the army. “These commanders are coordinating military operations with the Assad’s forces, providing them with information about rebel fighters and facilitating the recapture of areas previously controlled by the [rebellion].” This is an easily-recognisable pattern: a previous post on this blog recorded the way the Algerian regime’s military penetrated and directed the insurgency in that country into oblivion by pushing it toward takfirism and mass-murder.
The earliest, most comprehensive yet concise report on the regime’s collusion with the Qaedaists came from Michael Weiss in July 2013. Affaq Ahmad is the former right-hand man of General Jamil Hasan, the head of Air Force intelligence, the most feared branch of the Syrian mukhabarat, and he defected after the regime murdered 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib. He confirmed that the regime had penetrated and was now directing numerous units of various groups, including the Qaedaists: “The infiltration usually is focused on the sponsors, the grand Sheikh, or the top leaders of the groups, and mainly via manipulating the sources of financial support.” The Palestine Branch of Syrian military intelligence and the Special Operations Division of Air Force intelligence, headed by Colonel Suhail Hassan, are the mukhabarat bureaus in charge of overseeing the infiltration effort, Ahmad explained.
Sectarian provocations: ruined efforts for national movement against autocracy
The regime repeatedly provoked the Sunnis in a sectarian manner, knowing the only thing that one can be certain about with sectarianism: it will cause an equal and opposite reaction that will feed back on itself. “[S]ectarian polarization … shores up regime support,” which meant the minorities had to be frightened with the spectre of the Islamists, and for that such forces had to be visible. Within weeks of the uprising beginning, in Deraa, the security forces desecrated mosques, put alcohol bottles in them, made videos of themselves drinking in them, and wrote “there is no god but Bashar” on the walls, something no Muslim would do. Videos were disseminated of the Shabiha torturing pious Sunnis into repeating this slogan and beating a child until he bowed to a picture of Assad. Then came a series of massacres (p. 21-22) along the faultline between the Sunni plains and the Alawi Mountain, conducted by Alawi villagers with knives and pistols, beginning at Houla in May 2012, where the U.N. concluded that forces under regime control had slaughtered more than 100 Sunni civilians, and continuing in Qubair, Tremseh, and Haswiya, with atrocities on a similar model around the capital in Thiabieh and Daraya, and then the terrible mass-slaughter against the Sunnis of Bayda and Baniyas on the Alawi coast. With these massacres the Alawis were trapped: they were implicated in the regime’s crimes. This was especially true because Houla and the other early atrocities were done by neighbouring Alawi villagers to the Sunnis—men they had gone to school with.
The Bayda/Baniyas atrocities were carried out by the nascent National Defence Force. Since the summer of 2012, the regime’s army had been “morph[ing] into an entity more akin to a militia … in both make-up and ethos,” with many various sections, notably the broadly-defined Shabiha and the Popular Committees, heavily Alawi with some Druze and Christians, especially in the capital. The NDF was a consolidation of a sectarian counterinsurgency militia, organised and overseen by Iran, which is essentially all that is left of the Syrian State. Its nature did nothing to lower the sectarian tensions, and was not meant to: the Alawi commanders explained that the mission of the NDF was to “kill the Sunnis and rape their women“.
This strategy of heightening the sectarianism was quite deliberate. Affaq Ahmad, a senior regime defector mentioned above, explained:
“[T]he jihadist groups and brigades were very useful for the regime because they provided a justification for the regime’s insistence on a military solution, and provided some legitimacy under the cover of the War on Terror. These groups did not cross the red lines that were agreed on by the regime and their sponsors. This included the regime accepting the killing by those groups of Alawis and Druze in order to use that to convince these minorities to rally around the regime and hold on to it.”
Assad regime’s indirect assistance to the Salafi-jihadists
The evidence of the regime’s collaboration in the field with ISIS is by its nature, in a warzone and in relation to the darkest arts of covert action, “anecdotal”. Weiss reported on the situation in Raqqa via Elizabeth O’Bagy, whose elastic interpretation of her resume has no effect whatsoever on her analytical ability.
“The tribal authority confirmed [that Nusra was splitting oil profits with the regime] but told the FSA commanders not to raise a fuss because ‘we’re making a lot money on oil sales.’ O’Bagy also said that al-Nusra and [ISIS] is rumored to have cut a deal with the regime not to participate on front-lines of battles and reduce spectacular attacks in exchange for being allowed to govern their own territories in the north. ‘That is what happened in Raqqa,’ O’Bagy said. ‘It was a negotiated solution’.”
That the regime avoids hitting Nusra/ISIS targets is a recurring observation. Reuters earlier this month wrote:
“While [ISIS] held territory, the government left the towns unmolested, activists said. Only when they left did government forces drop barrel bombs—proof, they say, that Assad wants the most hardline Islamists to prevail in rebel areas so he can portray his fight as a battle with al Qaeda.”
ISIS had controlled Zarzur, Idlib, for quite some time and there were no strikes. Earlier this month, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front pushed ISIS out, and the next day strikes began. An ISIS defector told CNN last month: “There were a lot of regime locations we could have taken without sustaining losses of our fighters and we would receive orders to retreat.” U.S. intelligence has said Assad is “holding back from bombing the group’s offices in Raqqa province.” John Kerry—nobody’s idea of a hawk—said in January: “[Assad] himself has even been funding some of those extremists—even purposely ceding some territory to them in order to make them more of a problem so he can make the argument that he is somehow the protector against them.” In Manbij, on January 6, the black Qaedaist shahada was replaced with the revolutionary flag: then the regime attacked. ISIS’ own men have said “they believe the regime targeted its attacks on non-militant groups, leaving ISIS alone.” And one ISIS defector said: “We were confident that the regime would not bomb us. We always slept soundly in our bases.”
In the chaos of the anti-ISIS revolt after January 3, the regime remained selective in its application of air power, objectively intervening in the ISIS-rebel fracas on the ISIS side. Having launched one strike in November, the regime then hit Raqqa on January 15—after ISIS had been driven from its headquarters in the city on January 8. The strike on March 11 on the ISIS HQ in a hospital in Raqqa was likewise “surgical”. This is extremely suggestive because ar-Raqqa is the only provincial capital outside of the regime’s control, yet it is the one where the regime has altered its tactics.
So far—in a steadily escalating campaign from mass-artillery to helicopter gunships to fighter jets to Scud missiles to chemical weapons of mass destruction—the regime has aimed above all to disrupt the rebellion’s ability to govern successfully, to set up the apparatus of an embryo State that might allow Syrians a look at a decent alternative. “Even when the rebels are able to win terrain, they frequently lose the population, either through literal displacement or because people blame their plight on the rebels as well as the regime,” a report of the Institute for the Study of War explained. The regime has held on to the other provincial capitals because the rebels have before them the example of Aleppo. In this way, the regime doesn’t have to hold the provincial capitals by force; it can merely hold them hostage, threatening to rain down ruin on them if the rebels move in. As a Liwa at-Tawhid commander explained in January 2013:
“We can’t risk it. We don’t have the capabilities to provide for the people in these areas. … When we enter and the regime starts bombing and we have no food or supplies to give [the population], they turn against us and then we become the enemy. We’ve had to work around Aleppo instead of taking it like we should.”
Without money to provide for the population and guns to protect them, the rebels cannot even challenge the regime’s zones in these towns—if it does it risks alienating the population because of the regime’s harassing, indiscriminate response. The barrel bombs, which began in August 2012, are a continuation of this: they are not meant to push the rebels out of Aleppo and Homs, merely disrupt their ability to govern.
But these unmerciful tactics have not fallen on Raqqa.
Alliance of interests between the regime and the Salafi-jihadists
The overall strategy of the Salafi-jihadists means that it appears they are co-operating with the regime, even when they are not doing so directly. They agree with the regime on one big thing: the ISIS/Nusra forces should be the only alternative to the regime.
Jabhat an-Nusra and now ISIS have concentrated their efforts on pushing the rebellion out of liberated zones, while taking loud credit on social media and other platforms for anti-regime advances. The FSA-branded rebels would go to the front—to Wadi al-Deif and Qusayr, say, in the spring of 2013—only to find that Nusra (and then ISIS) were moving into Raqqa City, ensuring that no joint committee took hold, murdering secular activists and more nationalist rebels like Ahfad ar-Rasul. The rebels who returned home to Raqqa found themselves forcibly disarmed, largely by foreigners, and threatened with death if they dissented from the “Islamic State”. The dual effect of this—to relieve pressure on the regime and to present a wide public image of fanatics at the leading edge of the insurgency—could hardly be more helpful to the regime.
Jabhat an-Nusra was badly weakened by the advent of ISIS, which drew away most of its foreign fighters, who are the most fanatical and some of the most militarily capable. Nusra’s strategy in any case was driven by conflict-avoidance but in short-term, and while ISIS is consolidating a “State”—it believes that it is the custodian of a renewed Caliphate, and that the areas it controls are an embryo Islamic State, in which of course it has a monopoly of force—Nusra does actually have a common interest with the rebellion in resisting ISIS. This will not last forever and al-Qaeda will eventually begin again trying to hijack the revolution: the last thing it wants is for a nationalist, democratic alternative to the dictatorship to be available for the Syrians.
By the end of 2013, ISIS was consolidating a de facto partition with the regime, so virulent had its campaign to splinter or hijack the rebel groups become. Since the regime’s intention to rule the whole of Syria was “abandoned by the fall of 2012,” this made a neat fit with ISIS’ chief short-term intention of monopolising power for itself on the Northern and Eastern Fronts where the regime had been driven out and had no intention of returning.
The belief of some oppositionists that ISIS is an Iranian and/or Assad regime proxy overstates. This line of criticism of Nusra has abated, for now, with the group somewhat neutralised as a threat to the rebellion—though it should not be forgotten that before April 2013 the rebellion was on a collision course with Nusra because of its brutality and the increased recognition that it was a foreign-led intrusion into Syrian affairs. In ISIS’ case, the majority of its fighters are foreign. Thus, the word “rebel” is the wrong one for the Qaeda-type forces in Syria. Not only are they largely foreigners—thus they are not “rebelling” against anything—but their intentions are actively harmful to the chances of deposing the regime.
ISIS’ belief that it is a “State” means it acts to consolidate power in areas it controls—destroying other rebel groups, for instance—rather than pushing into regime-held territory. So the regime lets it be, and even encourages its expansion into areas it has given up the desire to control by splitting the oil revenues with it. This doesn’t mean the regime is in an “alliance” with ISIS, let alone likes it: it’s ultimate intention is to defeat it. In the short-term, however, the regime helps ISIS grow in power, manipulates it and uses it, facilitates it and will even accept ISIS attacking its supporters, but will check it with force if it threatens core regime interests. The tactic is called provocation: by infiltration and setting the conditions the regime drives the jihadists to become the dominant force within the insurgency, helps them destroy the moderates and even the non-globalist Salafists, has put on display their lurid cruelty, and once the jihadists are totally dominant, with the population terrified of the alternative since only takfirism seems available and the outside world seeing Assad as the lesser evil, the regime will make a move to destroy the jihadists and re-establish control, possibly with outside support. (Le Pouvoir tried to draw in France on its side against the insurgency in the 1990s; it didn’t work directly but France did give Algiers carte blanche on weaponry and no-questions-asked about human rights to deal with the takfiris it had willed into being.)
ISIS’ members and supporters, as you can tell if you follow their social media output, are largely unwitting in this scheme. Outside of those who are direct agents of the regime (likely field commanders where this is true) they really do believe themselves at war with a heretical tyranny and to implementing god’s law. But it does not remove the fact that their actions are destructive to the rebellion and helpful to the regime. Even the de facto non-aggression pacts ISIS has with the regime in places are not seen by ISIS as collaboration. It uses the respite to destroy the rebels, sure, but they are seen as temporary truces to allow them to consolidate conquests, before they press on to bring the whole world into Dar al-Islam.
Assad helped condition the atmosphere that has so terribly radicalised the insurgency. He let go the most violent, radical men who opposed him, and then provoked the population with sectarian violence to create conditions where these most hardline forces prospered at the expense of moderates. Assad had for years hosted and facilitated Sunni jihadist forces in Lebanon and Iraq, including al-Qaeda, which meant that networks and connections existed to quickly set up such a force in the country, and this force was then supplied with vast sums of money to allow it to overpower the nationalists. In sum, Weiss’ title was exactly right eight months ago: “Assad’s no enemy of al-Qaeda“.
Update: On July 19, 2014, I edited some of the arrangement, corrected some typos, and added in some explanation where it was missing. A clean-up, in other words, to make it easier to read and clearer what I meant. Post will remain a rolling collection of evidence.
Update 2: A follow-up post in September 2014, “Provocation and the Islamic State: Why Assad Strengthened the Jihadists,” brought the evidence of the regime’s tactics up to date and marked the beginning of the regime believing it was entering the end-game of getting American help to repress the insurgency.