Former IS hostage Nicolas Hénin argues that Assad will never be a serious ally in fighting jihadisby Nicolas Hénin and Martin Makinson / December 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
In the wake of the 13th November terrorist attacks that left 130 people dead in Paris, France has declared it is now a nation “at war” against Islamic State (IS). Britain has now joined them in striking IS in Syria. The Paris attacks were immediately condemned by the leaders of most nations across the world. One of the first condemnations came from Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President responsible for 90 per cent of the 250,000 people dead since March 2011. “France has known what we have been living in Syria” for four years, he said. Assad blamed the attacks on French foreign policy. The Syrian President was referring to France’s demand—an increasingly isolated one—that makes Assad’s departure a priority prior to any transition process in Syria.
Yet far from being an enemy of the jihadists, as he presents himself, Assad has had an active role in developing and strengthening jihadist movements since the very beginning of the Syrian revolution. Well before IS spilled into Syria, he assisted two Salafi groups, Jaysh ash-Sham and Jabhat an-Nusra, by freeing their leaders. He has refrained from attacking IS, which has concentrated mostly on spreading its terror and control in Syria at the expense of other rebel groups. These rebels’ priority is fighting the Syrian dictatorship. They have been both largely betrayed and abandoned by the west since the start of the uprising.
Favouring the most bloodthirsty and violent extremists makes perfect sense for Assad: this is a tactic Putin used in Chechnya after 1996. Assad’s family has a long history of supporting the most violent jihadi movements. Bashar’s father Hafez had always favoured Hamas, when it was launching suicide attacks in Israel. He let its representative Khaled Meshaal reside in the Syrian capital after his expulsion from Amman and Doha.
But nowhere has Assad’s manipulation of Sunni extremism been clearer than in Syrian policy towards Iraq in the wake of the 2003 American invasion. The Syrian regime, post-2003, helped IS’s ancestor to create a religious and sectarian divide in Iraq, and to make the country unmanageable for both the American occupation forces and for the newly elected Iraqi executive. Jihadism was used by Assad between 2003 and 2009 to transform its neighbour and rival Iraq into a failed state plagued by internecine violence. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, of which IS is a scion, was helped by ex-Baathi officials of Saddam Hussein, such as ex-vice-president Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri “the red,” who would go back and forth between Syria and Iraq, smuggling cars and bombs, blowing up police recruitment centres, mosques and international organisations like the UN’s offices in Baghdad.