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From the beginning of the uprising in Syria in 2011, there have been accusations that Bashar al-Assad’s regime was in a de facto partnership with the Islamic State (IS) against the mainstream opposition. These accusations have a considerable basis in fact: during the entirety of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq, Assad collaborated with IS jihadists in the destabilization of Iraq, killing thousands of Iraqi civilians and hundreds of American and British troops. Once the Syrian uprising was underway, the regime undertook various measures to bolster extremists in the insurgency. Assad and IS worked in tandem to leave Syria as a binary choice between themselves: Assad was sure this would rehabilitate him in the eyes of the world and transform his criminal regime into a partner of the international community in suppressing a terrorist insurgency, and IS wanted to rally Sunnis to its banner. The Secretary of the Syrian Parliament has now come forward to underline this.
Khaled Abboud, the executive secretary for the People’s Council of Syria (the legislature), was interviewed on Syrian state television this week, and said the following:
Where is Daesh [IS] and Jabhat al-Nusra [al-Qaeda in Syria, now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS)] and all these jihadist revolutionary factions. They are on the outskirts of Damascus.
Then why have there been no bombings in Damascus? Why are these bombings happening in Turkish cities instead? [Because] the Syrian security establishment and the Syrian intelligence services have infiltrated and deeply penetrated these networks. They have managed to take control of key structures within.
Consequently, in my opinion, what is happening in Turkey—no one can stop that without co-operating with the Syrian security establishment. I tell you, the Syrian state is aware of important aspects of what is going on in Jordan and Turkey.
There is a difference between knowing about these operations and actually running them.
In practice, that distinction between knowing of and running an operation is rather more difficult to sustain; it takes us deep into the “wilderness of mirrors“.
While Abboud’s statements can seem wildly at odds with the impression many have of Syria, in fact what he says is consistent with the known facts of the tradecraft and the messaging of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The regime has collaborated with, infiltrated, and manipulated terrorist groups, including IS, for decades. The use of terrorism in the Assad regime’s statecraft has always been linked to keeping the regime relevant, particularly with the United States: Damascus can offer to cease its terrorist activities in exchange for a closer relationship with the U.S. and concessions on some other front. Assad counts it as a point of prestige simply that the Americans are calling; Abboud’s claim that U.S. allies Jordan and Turkey will need to call Damascus to defend themselves from IS is very much in this mould. More broadly, Assad uses engagement with the U.S. to bolster the regime’s legitimacy by claiming it has made Syria powerful and important, the key to the whole region that all must appease to make any progress anywhere in the region.
A BLOODY TRAIL
Assad’s relationship with IS is the most immediately interesting, but it is worth taking a step back and looking at the regime’s broader record.
After entering Lebanon in 1976, numerous prominent opponents of the regime, then headed by Bashar’s father Hafiz, were murdered, from Kamal Jumblatt and Bashir Gemayel, to the wave of assassinations of anti-Damascus figures that followed the expulsion of Assad’s overt occupation force in 2005.
Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal), Muhammad Zaydan (Abu Abbas), and Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (“Carlos the Jackal”), the three most infamous terrorists of the 1980s, were based in Syria and served the House of Assad at various times.
Al-Banna switched back and forth between Syria and Saddam Husayn’s Iraq (contrary to the beliefs of some prominent politicians, Saddam was no enemy of terrorism). Among other things, al-Banna directed a wave of attacks against Jordan’s diplomatic facilities in the 1980s when relations between Amman and Damascus were tense.
Zaydan’s most high-profile crime, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro vessel and the murder of the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer because he was Jewish, was undertaken (p. 235-6) at the instruction, and with resources provided by, Assad’s Syria: the chances for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis were getting dangerously hopeful, mediated by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The idea of regional progress absent a Syrian role was—see above—unacceptable to Damascus, so it sabotaged such efforts. Zaydan escaped Italian custody because he had an Iraqi diplomatic passport and he spent the remainder of his life in Saddam’s Baghdad.
Sanchez came in useful to Hafiz al-Assad initially (p. 437) as a myth: there had been a series of hotel bombings by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1976-77, and they were blamed on “Carlos” rather than admit a serious internal security challenge caused by the intrusion into Lebanon. In 1982, Damascus wished to change French government policy on two points: reversing Paris’ pro-Iraqi tilt in the terrible war between Saddam and the Iranian revolution, the latter a close ally of the Assad regime and the former a mortal foe, and having Paris desist from efforts to get foreign troops, namely Syrians, out of Lebanon. A series of bombings in the French capital was the chosen method, using Sanchez—indeed Sanchez’s own wife—as a cut-out. Many other assassinations were carried out for the Assads by Sanchez. Sanchez retired to Damascus in the late 1980s, until they gave him up as part of Assad’s improved relations with the West following the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the first part of the Gulf War.
Another terrorist who found shelter in Damascus was Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organization that sought to detach parts of Turkey to create a Kurdish national state to be run on the model of the Soviet Union. The PKK was uprooted from Turkey by the 1980 coup and reconstituted under the watch of the Assad regime and the Soviet Union in the Bekaa valley of Syrian-occupied Lebanon. Ocalan was willing to be used as part of Assad’s dispute over damming and other matters with the Turkish government, and to serve the Soviets’ wish to destabilize a frontline NATO state. The PKK began its war against Turkey—which continues to this day—in 1984. Assad expelled Ocalan under Turkish pressure at the end of the 1990s, but relations between Assad and the PKK never did truly end and have come to the fore again recently as a key dynamic in Syria’s war.
Assad’s intelligence services tried to bomb on a plane in Britain that was bound for Israel in April 1986.The so-called Hindawi affair involved a Jordanian zealot, Nezar al-Hindawi, who put a bomb made in the Syrian Embassy in London into the luggage of his fiancé, an Irishwoman named Anne-Marie Murphy. Britain expelled the Syrians and severed diplomatic relations in response. Mrs. Thatcher later recorded that working with the Assad regime to get Saddam out of Kuwait was uncomfortable because she “had no illusion about its continued willingness to employ terrorism”.
ASSAD’S METHOD OF DEALING WITH OPPOSITION
When President Barack Obama entered office, among the rogues he was pledged to conciliate was the Assad regime, who had been diplomatically isolated for murdering the Lebanese Prime Minister and hundreds of American soldiers by his assistance to IS. Hillary Clinton called Assad a “reformer,” and an ambassador was swiftly restored to Damascus. John Kerry, now the Secretary of State, had written of the need to bring Assad in from the cold as early as 2008 and by the early years of the Obama administration was known as “Assad’s most important booster in Washington“. Between 2009 and 2010, Kerry visited Damascus five times. There was nothing to show for these American concessions.
This U.S.-Syrian channel, however, did provide for the disclosure of information about how Assad handled jihadists that matches very closely what Abboud described above. Syria’s intelligence chief Ali Mamluk showed up at a meeting with Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. counterterrorism coordinator, in February 2010. Mamluk emphasized that he had attended at the say-so of Assad. This was the kind of reward the Assad regime dispensed to the Obama administration to perpetuate the illusion of progress.
Mamluk teased the U.S. with the prospect of security cooperation and better “border security” with Iraq—in other words, Assad would turn off the flow of foreign fighters to IS—in return for political concessions, namely an expanded Syrian role in U.S. initiatives in the region, and the lifting of sanctions. Then, as now, Assad’s long support for some Islamist terrorists—HAMAS, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fatah al-Islam, Hizballah, and the Ba’athi-Islamists like Izzat al-Duri—was put to one side by Damascus, a mere difference of view on which the U.S. and Syria would have to agree to disagree. The real focus, Mamluk said, should be on the common U.S.-Syrian enemy: al-Qaeda and “takfiri” groups.
Then came the crucial section of the meeting where Mamluk explained how his officers deal with terrorism:
[Mamluk] stated Syria’s success is due to its penetration of terrorist groups. “In principle, we don’t attack or kill them immediately. Instead, we embed ourselves in them and only at the opportune moment do we move.” … Mamlouk acknowledged some terrorists were still slipping into Iraq from Syria. “By all means we will continue to do all this, but if we start cooperation with you it will lead to better results and we can better protect our interests,” he concluded. … Mamlouk identified Iraqi border security as an area where Syria and the U.S. could cooperate. … Mamlouk added that cooperation on Iraqi border security could lead to cooperation in other areas.
It’s not very subtle (“if we start cooperation with you it will lead to better results”), but creating problems in order to solve them—at the right price—had served the Assad dynasty this far, and would continue to.
Abu al-Abed Ashidaa was the leader of the (eventually) unified insurgent forces in eastern Aleppo City before the pro-Assad coalition took the area last month. Abu al-Abed identified the fact that “many factions were … infiltrated by the secret services of the regime” as one of the reasons the rebellion lost the battle. “From the beginning, the lines were blurred,” said Ali, a resident of Wadi Barada, a town west of Damascus currently under assault by the pro-Assad coalition. “The regime was infiltrating the rebels from the beginning, so there were informers everywhere.” Ali concluded that the regime’s spies were so widespread that judging what people really believed and who was in control was impossible: “Today, nothing is clear anymore. I couldn’t tell you whether the village is majority for or against the regime. And it is the same in most other villages in the area.”
The chances that this infiltration didn’t extend to IS would have to be reckoned as rather slim.
A DANGEROUS GAME
Assad weaponized IS for use in his foreign policy during the Iraq war. Days into the invasion, Assad transferred thousands of jihadists into Iraq, including Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), currently the leader of JFS. Throughout the mid-2000s, foreign fighters landed at Damascus international airport and were bussed by military intelligence to safe-houses they oversaw in the east of the country, provided training camps and regular meetings with Assad’s intelligence officials before being let loose on post-Saddam Iraq. Assad was found liable by U.S. courts for IS beheading two Americans in Iraq in 2004, and beyond Iraq, the IS bombing in Amman in November 2005, was traced back to assistance provided by Assad. Injured IS jihadists like Maysar al-Jiburi (Abu Mariya al-Qahtani) were able to move back into Syria and receive medical attention at Damascene hospitals.
The main IS facilitator in eastern Syria, Badran al-Mazidi (Abu Ghadiya), was killed in U.S. raid in October 2008 after the Assad regime refused to stop al-Mazidi. (The raid was made possible, incidentally, because the U.S. turned one of Assad’s spies in al-Mazidi’s inner circle. Even when having operational control of al-Mazidi’s network, Assad’s totalitarian regime had to have additional agents in place.) Any notion that this was the end of the Assad-IS collaboration was shattered in August 2009 by the massive bombings in Baghdad, which were conducted after a direct meeting between Assad’s intelligence, IS, and the Ba’athi-Islamists.
While evidence of specific instances of Assad assisting IS in 2010 is not currently available, the notion that at this point the Assad regime completely disengaged from the vast IS terrorist apparatus it had built in the east of the country is simply laughable.
Eleven days into the Syrian uprising in March 2011, Assad freed hundreds of Islamist prisoners—and further releases followed. The infrastructure Assad had helped IS build meant they mobilized far more quickly than anyone else. “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work,” said a defector from Assad’s military intelligence (who still prefers the regime to the insurgency). Among those released was Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), a key figure in the formation of the caliphate. Bombings were staged by the regime and blamed on jihadists and sectarian atrocities were then committed in the conscious hope of an in-kind response to encourage the minorities, who are disproportionately represented in the Assad regime, “to rally around the regime and hold on to it.” The clear intent of all this was to switch “the narrative of the newborn Syrian revolution to one of sectarianism, not reform.”
As of late 2012, the Assad regime’s counter-insurgency strategy was built around aerial bombardment and displacement to prevent the opposition setting up an attractive alternate governance structure that people could defect to. Instructively, once IS emerged publicly in Syria and began seizing territory in Syria in mid-2013, notably Raqqa, it was left alone to construct its caliphate. The regime had arrested and killed peaceful demonstrators at the same time it was releasing violent Islamists, and as the war went on it consistently concentrated its firepower on the mainstream rebels and not IS—even when they were literally next to one-another. Once the rebellion went to war with IS, the regime stepped in on IS’s side. IS offensives were facilitated by the regime—including in Aleppo in 2014 and 2015 (the latter so blatant that the State Department called out the regime publicly) and in Marea in 2016. Assad cut deals with IS to avoid fighting it, Palmyra most prominently, which returned to bite the regime recently. Assad regime officials have been sanctioned for trading in oil and other commodities with IS—effectively funding terrorism. The Kremlin was connected with these middle-men and Russian technicians work with IS in the energy sector.
Put simply, the Assad regime—and its allies, Russia and Iran—have done everything they can to build up the jihadists in the insurgency to will into existence the predicament they always said existed in Syria: the regime or a terrorist takeover. This strategy of forcing a binary choice—and empowering enemies who defeat themselves—is called provocation, a tactic perfected by the Russians and disseminated by the KGB to regimes like Assad’s and Algeria’s.
ASSAD’S PRIOR ADMISSIONS
Just as Ali Mamluk was hardly subtle in his attempt to blackmail the U.S. in 2010, Assad regime officials and supporters have not been quiet about their intentions since the war began.
Soon after the Assad regime began token strikes against IS in the summer of 2014, an Assad government employee openly told The New York Times that IS “is not a first priority,” that the regime is “happy to see ISIS killing” rebels, believing that when only IS was left, “the world would support the regime.”
Izzat Shahbandar, a former Iraqi MP and close aide to then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who functioned as one of the channels between Baghdad and Damascus, was happy to be quoted in The Wall Street Journal around the same time saying that Assad had described the regime’s strategy to him personally in May 2014. “Sometimes, the army gives them a safe path to allow the Islamic State to attack the FSA [Free Syrian Army] and seize their weapons,” Shahbandar said. “It’s a strategy to eliminate the FSA and have the two main players face each other in Syria: Assad and the Islamic State. … [N]ow [Assad] is asking the world to help, and the world can’t say no.”
Just this past September, Assad’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said that “the current priority of the Syrian government was not Daesh, especially in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, and that greater threat [was] the rebel groups”. “We have battles more important than the battle with IS,” al-Muallem said, and the U.S.-led Coalition could take the lead in defeating the takfiris.
A senior pro-regime official echoed this less than a month ago, saying, “The regime forgot about Raqqa a long time ago and made it the responsibility of the Americans. Let those alarmed by Daesh go and remove it.” Implicitly, the regime is not alarmed by IS. That a sole focus on IS made the Coalition into an extension of Assad’s air force has been evident from the moment the Coalition intervened in Syria in 2014: Assad performed an “economy of force,” leaving the U.S. and allies to deal with IS in the east, while he destroyed the workable rebels—many of them ostensibly supported by the U.S.—in the west.
The pro-Assad coalition seeks to overcome the political barrier to its inclusion in the family of nations, caused by its documented, industrial-scale crimes against humanity, by presenting the world with a stark choice of a blood-stained “secular” dictatorship or a jihadist regime. Even on the Assad regime’s own terms this choice breaks down—Assad’s regime was always sectarian, not secular, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is in control of much of the Assad regime now, it being neither secular nor a stranger to the use of global terrorism. But the regime’s history of collaboration with IS against the West, its diligent work to empower IS and similar groups for many years as part of its effort to defeat the Syrian uprising, and its shamelessness about both, should mean that Assad is disqualified from being a Western partner not only on moral grounds but even on the very narrow counter-terrorism grounds on which the West is currently engaging with Syria.