Best of enemies: Bashar al-Assad's collusion with Islamic State

Former IS hostage Nicolas Hénin argues that Assad will never be a serious ally in fighting jihadis

December 18, 2015
Far from taking the battle to IS, Bashar al-Assad has colluded with the group © Ammar Abd Rabbo / ABACA USA/PA Images
Far from taking the battle to IS, Bashar al-Assad has colluded with the group © Ammar Abd Rabbo / ABACA USA/PA Images

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.

Multiple envoys were sent from Baghdad in 2009, when the Iraqi government was threatening to cut diplomatic relations with Syria. Former Iraqi National Security Advisor Mowaffaq al-Rubaie states that he “went and met President Bashar al-Assad twice, and presented him with material evidence, documents, satellite pictures, confessions, all sort of evidence that his security forces were involved in… transporting jihadists from Syria to Iraq. And also, there were training camps with names and locations. He (Assad) was in total denial of that. There were secret meetings between representatives of Assad, and former Iraqi Baathist officers as well as jihadi militants.”

The meetings were hosted by Damascus prior to the Syrian uprising in March 2011.Shortly after the uprising's start, Assad declared an amnesty for prisoners. But the regime did not free human rights activists, peaceful protesters and secular dissidents. The amnesties only concerned Islamic militants like Zahran Alloush, the head of a jihadi guerrilla movement called Jaysh ash-Sham. The deliberate release of Syria’s most wanted jihadists was—as Nawaf Fares (a defector from Syrian Military Intelligence and the ex-ambassador to Iraq), stated in an interview in January 2014—a tactic for the regime to “not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out,” but “to facilitate them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades.”

What was the purpose of this policy? The amnesties were meant for foreign consumption, to prove to the west that the regime could forgive its opponents and was willing to enter a dialogue. The conversion of a revolution with a non-sectarian agenda into an armed uprising was to scare religious minorities into supporting a regime purportedly fighting an armed jihad said to be sponsored by Turkey and Gulf countries. Another element of this strategy was to transform the Syrian uprising into a sectarian quagmire. And finally Assad was attempting to nip in the bud any western sympathy for a revolution wanting to follow in the footsteps of the peaceful protestors of Tahrir Square in Cairo or Tunis.

Oil was the lubricant for a non-aggression pact of sorts. Assad’s regime abstained from any bombing campaign against the terrorist organisation controlling one third of Syrian territory. To most, this has seemed absurd, until Telegraph journalist Ruth Sherlock uncovered shady deals between the regime and jihadist organisations controlling the oilfields of the Deir ez-Zor area near the Euphrates in January 2014. At first, Assad was happy to negotiate with Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria). The latter then went to war against IS in 2014, a war motivated to a great extent by the will to control the lucrative oilfields. As former IS hostage Nicolas Hénin emphasises, “the Homs and Banias refineries, in particular, never stopped being supplied with crude oil, despite the regime losing most of its oilfields. Many of the installations seized by Jabhat al-Nusra are now under Islamic State’s control and there is nothing to suggest that these agreements with the regime have ended since.”

In 2014, IS was making more than a million dollars a day out of oil pumped from the Deir ez-Zor area and the Baiji refinery in Iraq. Exploited very primitively, this oil was then the organisation’s main revenue, and was sold as crude to intermediaries, many dealing with the regime, some with Turkey. The oil would leave the zone controlled by IS in caravans of trucks. This source of income has been targeted by coalition airstrikes, but has not ceased altogether. Now that oil tapping has reached new lows in IS-controlled Syria and Iraq, IS has intensified other lucrative sources of cash such as the illicit trade in antiquities, increasing its “tax” on looted antiquities from 20 per cent to 50 per cent. The rest is made with the exported cotton of the Jazira. Most money is now made of taxes and fines levied on the population for the slightest of “offences,” such as smoking.

Until 220 Syrian soldiers were murdered by IS in 2014, following the seizure of the city of Ath-Thawra near the Tabqa dam on the Euphrates, Assad refrained from any military action targeting the terrorist organisation. Perhaps the oil deals had something to do with an understanding of sorts, enabling the provision of enough fuel for tanks and helicopters bombing their way through other rebel-held villages, cities, schools and hospitals of central and northern Syria.

January 2014. The scene is in Geneva, during the peace talks between the opposition and the regime. A dissident goes to a Syrian minister and asks: “Why don’t you bomb IS? Aren’t we both against it? Why don’t you bomb Raqqa. I am from Raqqa. I know where the Headquarters of Daesh (IS) are. I can show you where they are. Why don’t you bomb them?” Regime officials ignored the question.

May 2015. A Column of IS soldiers has just seized Palmyra. The Syrian army has retreated a few kilometres outside the city, practically without a fight. Palmyra is both a national symbol (with its classical ruins), and an image of state terror with its notorious prison, the scene of a massacre of more than a thousand dissidents in 1980, and a place for the Syrian regime’s worst human rights abuses. The jail is opened, and prisoners see at last the light of day. Some of them are Lebanese imprisoned for two decades, Lebanese whose jailing and abduction were denied wholesale by the Assad regime. Neither coalition forces nor Assad’s helicopters and aircraft, the latter pouring barrel bombs over Idlib, Aleppo, Hama and Homs provinces every single day, have taken action against the IS column of fighters arriving from Iraq’s Al-Anbar province, something rather bewildering. Unless the regime sees no urgency in destroying a movement essentially fighting against other rebels, thus enabling it to save its divisions for another day. Unless letting IS execute Syrian state officials like Khaled al-Asaad (the director of the archaeological site), allowing it to blow up one after the other the ancient city’s temples and arches and columns and tower tombs, is considered useful propaganda recasting Assad in his favourite role, that of vanguard of civilisation against the hordes of Islamic terrorism. It was a decision designed for western consumption.

May 2015, again. IS forces advance westwards and reach the edge of the Syrian desert, capturing Qaryateyn. They bulldoze a monastery that abducted Father Paolo Dall’Oglio had transformed into a living community promoting inter-faith dialogue, as he had done in the 5th century AD monastery of Mar Musa near Nebek. Simultaneously, IS advances towards Sa‘an and Ras al-Hilal further north, also on the edges of the steppe and on a road crossing the desert from Raqqa. Members of the Ismaili Shia community are slaughtered by jihadists. But wasn’t the regime going to come to their rescue? Wasn’t it going to protect one of Syria’s minorities, a role its rhetoric constantly proclaims, something regime supporters abroad are always keen to emphasise? It is true that the Ismaili, forming 2 per cent of Syria’s population, have been rather lukewarm or even reluctant allies of the regime, refusing to fight for his army. Salamiyeh had been the scene in 2012 of car bomb attacks killing dozens of inhabitants, similar to the ones targeting the Druze community the same year in Jaramana on the outskirts of Damascus. Attacks some describe as a deliberate operation by the Syrian mukhabarat (secret police).

The Assad regime is therefore not only abstaining from any offensive against IS, but in fact has threatened to let the terrorist organisation advance elsewhere in the country at the expense of another minority, the Druze of the south. The regime thus appears to be exerting a blackmail of sorts, a blackmail also meant as revenge against people who have maintained a posture of relative neutrality in the four years of conflict, and have consistently refused to send their children to fight in Assad’s army. On September 6th 2015, the statues of Hafez al-Assad were sent crashing to the ground by an infuriated crowd in Suweida, the Druze "capital" which had withstood the war without much damage and which was the scene of an attack killing 26 civilians, including Sheikh Walid al-Balous. Balous was a community leader who had vehemently opposed the recruiting of Druze youth in the Syrian Arab Army. Druze activist Izzat Salloum emphasised that his community “were aware that Assad regime has been trying to ignite the flames of sedition among the Syrian communities.”

Following riots in the city, the Syrian security services closed roads and stopped internet access to the Suweida and the Jebel Druze. It was rumoured that Luna Chebel, the press advisor to Assad and a Druze herself, had sent a message to community leaders, stating that the Druze would not be protected against IS unless 27,000 of their sons joined an army desperately short on manpower. The Times summarised the fears of the Druze community, a heterodox sect of Ismaili Shia Islam born in the mountains of Lebanon: “Assad is abandoning us to be slaughtered. To IS, we are infidels”. This blackmail via IS, exerted against the minorities it so vocally claims it is protecting, is perhaps, as much as the rebels’ offensive on Idlib and Hama provinces, a sign of increasing regime weakness. Collusion with IS, as expressed in the absence of reaction when minorities are threatened with massacres, is a signal of the bankruptcy of the regime’s narrative, a narrative some western diplomats are sometimes more prone to believe than Assad supporters themselves.