A link between Bashar Assad regime and the rise of the so-called Islamic State does not come as a surprise to many Syrians. Unlike the image the regime has been trying to sell to world media that Assad is fighting ISIS, there is well-documented evidence of the Assad dictatorship’s contributions to the ISIS tale of terror. Both former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Assad released al-Qaeda-affiliated prisoners in 2011 in their respective countries, which was instrumental to the rise of ISIS. So far, research has shown that releasing Jihadist extremists correlates with the increase of the number of arrests of civic and secular activists, the low number of combat engagements between the regime and ISIS, the stable economic cooperation between the regime and ISIS and the uninterrupted link to Jihadists in Iraq.
“We are practical and not theoretical,” said Gen. Ali Mamlouk, Assad’s special intelligence advisor and one of the regime’s most repressive characters before and after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, to US officials in 2010. Proud of the regime’s success of penetrating terrorist groups, he said: “In principle, we don’t attack or kill them [terrorists] immediately. Instead, we embed ourselves in them and only at the opportune moment do we move.”
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When the Syrian uprising began in mid-March 2011, Assad regime strategically released hundreds of radical Jihadists from prison in May 2011. At least 260 prisoners were released from the Saydnaya military prison in north Damascus, from whom only 14 were members of Kurdish entities and the rest were hard-core Islamists. By the end of that year, more than 1,000 former al-Qaeda militants were released to strengthen jihadist ranks at the expense of moderate rebel forces. These went to play major roles in ISIS, al-Nusra and other extremist groups. Such a move aimed at radicalising and discrediting the uprising across the country.
One the one hand, the regime didn’t only free Jihadists from prison but also facilitated their work in creating armed brigades. Based on several exclusive interviews and investigations with defectors, Assad intelligence received orders to stand by when al-Qaeda fighters crossed from Iraq into Syria in late 2012.
Some of the most prominent names released then are Abu Khaled Al-Souri (al-Qaeda), Hassan Aboud (Ahrar Al-Sham), Zahran Alloush (Jaish Al-Islam) and Amr Al-Absi (ISIS). By 2012 it was estimated that, ISIS had almost doubled its previous numbers to 2,500 fighters in Iraq. This plays well in the hand of Assad in persuading the West that the uprising was sponsored by Islamist militants. Indeed, to frame the nationwide uprising in 2011 against him as a terrorist-led revolt. He alleged that those leading the uprising across Syria were no more than armed terrorists, in an attempt to send a message to the world: “Either me or the terrorists.”
On the other hand, thousands of civilians and liberal civic activists were driven into prisons, beaten, tortured, terrorised, and horrified and millions, including many human rights activists, were forced to flee their homes seeking refuge inside or outside the country. Assad regime imprisoned thousands of civilians and protestors, staged concocted attacks against governmental facilities in 2011 and 2012, even before ISIS had presence in Syria, and commissioned fake trials to convict protesters of terrorism. Thus while playing with reality to match the regime’s propaganda, Assad claims to be the victim of Jihadist extremism. Controversially notorious, these same prisoners regardless of the accusations directed against them, were partially released after having to pay bribes to governmental officials.
Security forces and lawless secret police (Shabbiha) confronted peaceful protests with utter brutality and killed hundreds of civilians in the first few weeks to ignite a beginning of an increasingly bloody death toll. Therefore, any form of opposition had to be practiced from abroad; otherwise a risk of imprisonment, torture, or murder was in place.
These atrocious actions were in correlation with rare combat engagements with the ISIS militants. According to senior defence intelligence officer Jeffrey White at The Washington Institute, the regime “fights ISIS where and when important regime interests are at stake. When such interests are not at stake, the regime is content for ISIS to fight the rebels without interference and even to tacitly assist the group.
“In the Syrian war, the regime is completely pragmatic regarding whom to fight with or against, as well as where and when to fight.” While the regime remains an unreliable ally in combating ISIS, it is more likely to be “putting only limited effort into the fight while putting its own interests first, including cooperating with ISIS when deemed expedient,” he adds.
The fact that Assad regime has targeted its military operations against “moderate and secular opposition groups” while barely attacking ISIS indicates that this opposition is “considered to be much more of a threat to the regime than ISIS”, according to the PAX policy report in 2015. The Assad regime hasn’t only turned the other way when ISIS militants were thriving but also cooperated with them out of necessity by purchasing fuel from ISIS-controlled oil facilities, thus maintaining an economic relationship with ISIS throughout the conflict.
But this is not the whole story. The Assad regime has a long history of cooperation with radical Islamists playing a double game with terrorists. This relationship dates back to 2003 when it supported and facilitated the formation and the flow of jihadist resistance into Iraq to fight against US invasion. According to Sinjar records by Combating Terrorism Centre uncovered by US forces in 2008, 606 fighters from different countries had crossed into Iraq from Syria between August 2006 and August 2007. The number of those crossed to Iraq via Syria is much higher than this, but this is a documented study based on evidence, which focuses on a specific timeframe and a specific crossing point. The Assad intelligence was fully aware of foreign al-Qaeda volunteers entering Iraq via Syria.
“The history of the Syrian government’s relationship with alien Islamist militants is long and complicated, ranging from open support to brutal suppression of jihadi activists operating within its borders,” stated the report in 2008. These reports seem to add to the rubrics of a long documentation process, which indicates that the Assad regime gave the green light to militant groups in Syria to form and flourish.
The Assad regime “opened the door to terrorists in order to put pressure on the American troops in Iraq so they wouldn’t even think of war [against Syria],” said the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government Massoud Barzani in an interview.
The regime conducts its policies in regard to ISIS based on a pragmatic approach that serves its interests to further its political aims and consolidate its power structures. Thus, through a relationship of coordination, which implies conflict, and cooperation, which implies coalition, both the regime and ISIS have been ready to commit atrocities against each other and against civilians alike.