Assad and ISIS

A veteran journalist, Roy Gutman, has written a series of three articles for the Daily Beast with the suggestive titles, “Assad Henchman: Here’s How We Built ISIS” (part 1); “How Assad Staged Alqaeda Bombings” (part 2); and “How ISIS returned to Syria” (part 3).

The gist of the series is that the Assad regime was complicit in the creation of ISIS by allowing Islamists out of prison early during the uprisings; by not engaging them militarily during the war; by staging false-flag operations against government targets in order to justify military crackdowns; and various other strategies.

Gutman’s articles have been championed by opposition supporters and critiqued by regime loyalists. Here are a few thoughts and suggestions for further reading.

The most astute observers of the conflict have long recognized the alignment of certain interests between the regime and the most radical elements in the Islamist opposition. The rise of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra has been disastrous for the secular political opposition, whom Assad was intent to portray as foreign-sponsored conspirators from the earliest period. (See here and here for two takes on the major speech of April 2011, in which the regime’s unwavering policy was first articulated.)

But those same astute observers, like the excellent Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, have also pointed out that an alignment of interests is not evidence of direct collaboration. Al-Tamimi wrote in 2014:

There is no doubt that the jihadi presence in Syria- whether in the form of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the multiple muhajireen-led battalions- is useful to the Assad’s narrative on the rebellion as a foreign-backed “takfiri/Wahhabi” conspiracy against Syria. It is also clear that the regime has tried to exploit this presence to compel the opposition-in-exile at the Geneva talks into accepting that Assad should stay in power, and that the regime and opposition should instead work together to crush ISIS et al.- an opportunity that Assad hopes could quell the entire rebellion and reassert control over the whole country, which has been and remains his goal.


There is also no doubt that ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have regime infiltrators. One should note an interview back in the summer with one Abdullah Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, an assistant to ISIS’ northern amir Omar ash-Shishani, in which he affirmed: “Indeed the [Islamic] state has become greatly infiltrated by the Syrian regime; and that has led to harm to the reputation of the state and shaking of its security.”

However, infiltration is hardly a surprise, and does not show a group is a regime agent. Infiltration amongst both the opposition and regime sides is only to be expected in a time of war, as when the predecessor of Jaysh al-Islam- Liwa al-Islam- was able to infiltrate regime ranks and perpetrate the suicide attack in summer 2012 that killed the Defense Minister. On the other side, former regime officers- leaving aside what their real loyalties might be- can be found across the rebel spectrum.

What to make, then, of Mr. Gutman’s articles? Insofar as they are based on interviews with defectors and the statements of foreign political officials who are party to the conflict, the articles are short on data and long on speculation. That’s unfortunate, because they have given regime apologists more ammunition for the claim that the Syrian uprising is nothing but a foreign conspiracy fueled by fake news and Gulf-funded think tanks.

Here’s another theory.

When the Assad regime released many of its Islamist prisoners from Sednaya Prison in 2011 — including individuals like Zahran Alloush, Yahia al-Hamawi, Hassan Abboud, and others who would go on to positions of leadership in Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and ISIS — it did so in full knowledge that the Islamists spelled trouble for the nascent uprising.

The intelligence services guessed correctly that the peaceful secular demonstrations would be overrun by violent former inmates, but they also thought that the Islamists could be squashed by the Syrian Army and the uprisings would come to an end. A few concessions would be offered to an authorized political opposition. The Syrian public would be spooked by the specter of jihadism and would line up behind the regime again. Everything would return to normal.

This was the gamble, and it had worked in the past. Using Islamists to start fires that the regime would put out was not a novel strategy; it was an old game that Arab governments had played successfully for decades. Just a few years before the 2011 uprisings, we saw the rise of a jihadi movement in Lebanon: Fatah al-Islam’s short-lived emirate in the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp. That group was widely seen as a tool of Syrian intelligence, used to throw the country into chaos in response to the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Longtime Syria-watchers will recall that Hizbullah was adamantly opposed to the Lebanese Army’s assault on the camp, despite the fact that Fatah al-Islam was a Sunni salafist jihadi group that didn’t look so different from Jabhat al-Nusra today. The only reasonable explanation for Hizbullah’s opposition was that the party’s leadership knew that the jihadis were under the sway of Syrian intelligence.

So, using jihadi groups to further one’s political ends is not far-fetched, as a principle. It would have been a logical thing to do under the circumstances, given the regime’s successful infiltration of these groups (as Ali Mamluk admitted to US government representatives in a famous Wikileaks cable).

The gamble, though, was only partly successful. The uprising was quickly corrupted, but the jihadists would soon shock not just the regime but the rest of the world by rampaging all around the Levant and Mesopotamia.

By this point, there was no longer any meaningful connection between the regime and its jihadist foes. There was still an alignment of interests: Assad could claim, justifiably, that the opposition was dominated by the jihadists, and that the only way to deal with it was through military confrontation. But at what cost?

Some will say that the opposition would have been corrupted by jihadism whether or not the regime released those prisoners. They might be right; the conflict may well have been internationalized anyway. But if we’re going to play that game of scapegoat historiography, there’s enough blame to go around.

This is my personal speculation, which, as always, is open to critique. If you disagree with me, see how my friend Ehsani’s reading strikes you. And be sure not to miss this interesting radio interview with Roy Gutman and Joshua Landis.



15 thoughts on “Assad and ISIS

  1. I really don’t think there is even a soupçon of merit in the basic idea being discussed here. I’m sorry. Wikileaks made it quite clear what we all knew, which is that Saudi, Qatar, Turkey and behind them the US, were behind ISIS. Clear as day. This is not worth writing about as other than an analysis of propaganda.

    Posted by qusu | December 8, 2016, 3:37 am
  2. “The only reasonable conclusion for Hizbullah’s opposition was that they knew that the jihadis were under the sway of its ally in Damascus.”

    Well, there was of course also the tiny matter of an entire Palestinian refugee camp – and one of the more prosperous and economically functional ones for that matter, which played an important role in the economy of dirt poor Akkar in general – being mercilessly reduced to rubble and tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees made homeless once again… I seem to remember other people than just Hezbollah were also rather shocked by the brutal destruction…

    Posted by Bart Peeters | December 8, 2016, 4:02 am
  3. Bart,

    Hizbullah’s opposition was made clear before the camp was assaulted.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 8, 2016, 5:16 am
  4. My friend, As`ad Abu Khalil, has criticized this post. Here’s a response to his critique:

    Basically, in this piece, Elias reveals himself as fully March 14, while he used to be more careful in his analysis before. This piece reads like the talking points of March 14 really.

    My views have always been an open book. I think my record of critiquing both the Saudi-sponsored and Iranian-sponsored camps in Lebanon is fairly clear. Search this blog and make up your own mind.

    1) His opening sentence set the stage: “Gutman’s articles have been championed by opposition supporters and critiqued by regime loyalists. ” So here he tells readers that anyone who is critical of the piece is a regime supporters. Look at this demagogic method.

    No, As`ad, that’s incorrect. After all, I’m critical of the piece; does that make me a regime supporter? You are critical of the piece as well, and you are not a regime supporter. You’re making a basic logical fallacy here. The part does not stand for the whole, and it seems intellectually dishonest to try to dismiss the piece as demogogic on this basis.

    2) He then informs the readers this: “The most astute observers of the conflict have long recognized the alignment of certain interests between the regime and the most radical elements in the Islamist opposition.” Here, you are to believe that if you are astute you have to agree with the premise of Gutman and Western media and government, otherwise you are not astute. No evidence is necessary.

    I don’t think you read the piece very carefully. I gave you one example of an astute observer: Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi. What is his view of the Assad-ISIS connection? That there is no such connection. In other words, the most astute observers, in my opinion, are those who recognized that the alignment of interests between the regime and ISIS was circumstantial, not evidence of direct collaboration.

    3) Look at this line (and notice that Elias, like all other cheerleaders of the armed Jihadi groups in Syria…)

    This is a caricature, As`ad. I challenge you to find a single word I’ve written in support of armed jihadi groups in Syria or anywhere else. I’m disappointed in this language.

    Elias then proceeds to yet again complains that the fact that Gutman piece is short on data and research (unless sitting in cafes in Istanbul counts as solid research) is bad not from a journalistic standpoint but because it helps the opponents of his beloved Syrian rebels (former Voltaire battalions who were transformed by trickery by the regime to Jihadi battalions): “That’s unfortunate, because they have given regime apologists more ammunition for the claim that the Syrian uprising is nothing but a foreign conspiracy fueled by fake news and Gulf-funded think tanks.”

    I’ll grant that this could have been put more forcefully. The piece struck me as short on data and long on speculation, period.

    But I am not sure what he mans by the side reference to Gulf-funded think tanks? Does he mean that those are valuable academic assets who should not be criticized or does he mean that their punditry should be respected and not maligned and ridiculed. Not sure here but he seems defensive about them.

    No, I think the funding angle is always pertinent, but not necessarily decisive. There are some analysts whose work I respect, who have worked at institutions that received money from foreign governments.

    So the evidence marshaled by Elias is that since the regime released them from jail, it means it controls them and even controls them when they bomb the regime sites and when they kill regime supporters, etc.

    No, you’re caricaturing again. 🙂

    This is precisely not what I’m saying. If I were saying this, I wouldn’t have proposed an alternate reading of question of regime-jihadi links. What I’ve suggested above, hypothetically, is that the regime’s decision to let Islamists out of prison was not an act of altruism or even one of political expediency, but rather one that may have been intended to corrupt the earliest uprisings. That’s it. That could be completely wrong, I’m happy to admit. And in a way, it’s a moot point, because the trajectory of the conflict following the initial uprisings had a logic of its own.

    But here is what curious: if this is the evidence in itself, how come Elias never wrote that US is responsible for the Jihadi in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as the US release scores of Jihadi fighters INCLUDING BAGHDADI HIMSELF? And does this argument not apply to Jordan, Saudi, Pakistani, Afghani, and Moroccan regime? The Jordanian regime is most culpable among them all as it started to manipulate Jihadis long before any of those regimes.

    Of course the US has to answer for the rise of jihadism in these contexts where it releases prisoners. And so are the other governments you mention. We agree on that point.

    Then Elias produces another conspiracy theory more fascinating than the first one: “The intelligence services guessed correctly that the peaceful secular demonstrations would be overrun by violent former inmates”. Here, what does overrun mean? I mean, if the rebels were mostly secular, why would the release of Jihadi “overrun” them? What would that happen if the majority are active in the Voltaire Battalions? Why did not the more popular (according to Elias and all other mainstream journalists) secular forces overrun the others?

    The simple point is that the peaceful marches that we saw early on would be overtaken by attacks against police and army installations. I don’t think this should be so hard to understand.

    7) Then Elias proceeds to make a Lebanon analogy: “That group was widely seen as a tool of Syrian intelligence”. Widely seen? It was only “widely seen” by the Hariri family and the rest of the Saudi-run March 14 Movement. There was never any evidence presented about that.

    Ok. 🙂

    Are you really going to pretend that there isn’t a long history of Syrian intelligence infiltrating, manipulating, and using Islamist groups for its own purposes? Come on. You have been following Middle East politics much longer than I have. Maybe this wasn’t the case with Fatah al-Islam. That’s why I have proposed it as a theory. But I think it’s worth considering.

    Elias then says: “Longtime Syria-watchers will recall that Hizbullah was adamantly opposed to the Lebanese Army’s assault on the camp”. I consider myself “a long time Syria-watcher”–and an occasional bird-watcher–and I dont recall that. This is absolutely and totally untrue, and even Elias friends in March 14 would not mischaracterize the stance of Hizbullah as such. Hizbullah was NOT opposed to the assault on the camp: Nasrallah specifically said that entry into the camp “is the red line”. He meant that the civilian population of the camp should be spared and that the assault on Fath Al-Islam should have sparred the lives of civilians.

    Hizbullah was against the army going into the camps, period. I have this on the authority of Alain Aoun, as I wrote in 2009. He told me that it was the Tayyar that convinced Hizbullah that the Army had to go in. I can send you the article.

    Now, you may be right that it was a question of the civilian population and not regime infiltration of Fatah al-Islam. But haven’t we seen Hizbullah participate in battles in Syria where civilians have been killed? I think there’s a double standard here.

    Infiltration of groups means control and creation of those groups? Do you remember after Sep. 11 when George Tenet testified before US Congress that CIA had infiltrated Al-Qa`idah? Syrian, Jordanian, Saudi, and other Arab and Western and Israeli intelligence services had all infiltrated those groups, but why do you go from here to decide that only the Syrian regime is guilty of infiltration?

    Good point. The critical distinction is this. When a government infiltrates a non-state actor in order to use that actor against its enemies, I think we can start to talk about control or collaboration. My supposition is that the Assad regime may have thought it could use the Islamist prisoners against the early uprisings. That doesn’t mean that they were running them, or that they even had much control over them. It’s clear that nobody really did.

    Again, I’m happy for the critique of my position and the opportunity to clarify it further. I respect and admire my friend As`ad, even when he is a little bit harsh with me. 😉

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 8, 2016, 12:31 pm
  5. Here’s a fact that definitely strengthens this case: Since the advent of ISIS in Syria some 4 years ago, how many battles have the regime conducted against ISIS? And how many sorties by the RUssians and the regime that targeted ISIS? Compared to the targeting of the FSA and the rest of the opposition, very very negligible.
    This doesn’t whitewash the funding channels of the Gulf states et al, actually it played into the hands of the conspiracy that the Regime and its allies began since the onset of the rebellion.
    It was quite a neat display of Machiavellian politics.

    Posted by Maverick | December 8, 2016, 12:35 pm
  6. “an old game that Arab governments had played successfully for decades.”

    I wasn’t aware of the debate over Fatah al-Islam. The example I always see in this context is Algeria 1991, when the government is said to have promoted and even orchestrated the rise of the GIA. Without giving an opinion on the subject of this post, it seems certain that Assad will have noticed that the Algerian regime won that war.

    Posted by Conor Meleady (@Conormel) | December 8, 2016, 1:02 pm
  7. A shattered analysis and fishing expedition without a word of Saudi adventurism and in addition to the fact that Syrians did not want an armed battle-cum-abyss in spite of Assad.

    Posted by Wilbur | December 8, 2016, 4:01 pm
  8. One aspect of the “who created ISIS” history which does not get mentioned nearly often enough is that IS developed and erupted from within the Syrian insurgency. The scores of fighters who defected from al-Nusra Front to form IS were an integral part of the Syrian rebel forces for a long time, and not some surprise invaders from Iraq as is commonly imagined. They were at the forefront of most successful rebel offensives from late 2012 to late 2013. At the time, the moderate Syrian opposition (both military groups and media advocates) stubbornly downplayed, avoided mentioning, or even outright deniad the steady influx of hardcore jihadists from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Turkestan, and other faraway destinations, while at the same time feigning outrage at the presence of fellow Arabs from Iraq and Lebanon among the regime forces.

    Here’s Riad al-Assad denying the existence of al-Qaeda in Syria, July 2012:

    Less than three months later:

    December 2012, after USA designates al-Nusra as a terrorist organization, multiple rebel groups and civilian organizations, as well as senior figures including the then head of SNC come out in defence of al-Nusra: (see here)

    Multiple demonstrations are organized throughout rebel-held Syria under the slogan “we are all al-Nusra”:

    Meanwhile, just a week before being so publicly defended, Nusra used a unit of Chechens, Uzbeks, and other Russian-speaking jihadists to capture a major Syrian airbase:

    We later learn that this was where IS’s chemical weapons come from:

    2013: ISIS, now separate from al-Nusra, is the leading force in most rebel offensives:
    How is the territory they control represented on maps drawn by rebel supporters? Why, green of course: What else could they do when ISIS was spearheading the offensives even in Latakia?

    This continued until the bitter end in January 2014:

    To sum up, even if we were to believe that Assad consciously created ISIS, the naivety or even downright stupidity of the Syrian opposition is at least as much to blame for its rise to prominence.

    Posted by Hattivat | December 8, 2016, 4:09 pm
  9. @Wilbur and @Hattivat

    Thank you both for your comments. None of what you say is in question, from my perspective. The radicalization of the uprising is a story that goes way beyond anything the regime could have orchestrated. That’s not my argument.

    I merely proposed an alternative to the Assad-ISIS theory that doesn’t accept the regime’s narrative that they were blameless victims in all of this.

    There was a desire to derail the uprisings. That shouldn’t be controversial. The question is: did they release prisoners in order to help do so? Or are those two facts unrelated?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 8, 2016, 4:49 pm
  10. @Qifa

    My comment was absolutely not intended as a criticism of your article, rather as an extension of it. It’s just some additional evidence against the ISIS-Assad conspiracy theory, more specifically the “we were just blameless victims” part which you mentioned, as well as the bizarre “ISIS is still under Assad’s influence” segment of it.

    As far as the initial release of prisoners is concerned, my POV is very similar to yours: I’m not sure if radicalizing the opposition was the primary reason for their release (it could very well be motivated first and foremost by genuine hope that it would placate the protesters somewhat, after all their representatives did demand the release of political prisoners, which many of these people arguably were), but Assad must have known that the release of these particular people would not help the revolution, so it at the very least a profoundly cynical move, and I’m inclined to believe that the regime consciously selected the most radical prisoners for the release in order to, as you wrote in the article, spark a minor Salafist uprising and scare the population (and the international public opinion) into relucant support/acceptance of the regime. This is purely my speculation based on observing Syria though, I have no access to any “inside” sources like Roy Gutman claims to have.

    Posted by Hattivat | December 8, 2016, 6:06 pm
  11. @Hattivat

    Very helpful, thank you.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 9, 2016, 11:34 am
  12. headline from onion – Fearful Americans Stockpiling Facts Before Federal Government Comes To Take Them Away.

    The Middle East Contagion hit us here in America…someone should photo shop the Donald in the iconic pause of Saddam firing his riffle over the “massive crowds” 😁

    Posted by Vulcan | February 4, 2017, 4:03 am
  13. Akbar Palace,

    Did you miss me? Hi Vulcan.

    Assad, ISIS and Iran are products of the autocratic and theocratic Middle East. One is no more to blame than the other. These are regimes and organizations that operate ONLY by using terrorism.

    The world needs to defeat each of these centers of terrorism and then rebuild. Nothing short of this will accomplish anything. At least with Trump, we may have a US Administration willing to do something.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 13, 2017, 2:56 pm


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