The Guardian reported in Sept 2014 that “the Syrian government and its close allies in Moscow and Tehran warned Barack Obama that an offensive against Islamic State (Isis) within Syria would violate international law”. The implication is leave ISIS alone.
You might think that if ISIS was the enemy of Syria and Iran, Damascus would welcome the move and offer assistance to defeat ISIS.
In March 2015 the FT reported that a Syrian businessman responsible for orchestrating millions of dollars’ worth of secret oil and gas trades between the Assad government and its ‘sworn enemy’, ISIS, was among 13 individuals and organisations hit with sweeping new economic sanctions by the EU.
Philip Hammond UK Foreign Secretary announced at the time:
“We have also agreed to target individuals supplying oil to the regime, including George Haswani, a middleman buying oil from ISIL [Isis] on behalf of the regime. This listing gives yet another indication that Assad’s ‘war’ on ISIL is a sham and that he supports them financially.”
Channel 4 News Website in April 2014 published a report with the headline:
The essential point was that Assad and ISIS have a common goal which is the destruction of moderate opposition forces.
It cites evidence from across the country, including regions such as Raqqa, Jarablus and Al-Danna, that Isis headquarters escaped unscathed in the midst of heavy shelling from Assad’s forces.
“The leaders of Isis have already worked hand in glove with Syrian intelligence, whether supplying them with weapons or supplying money flowing from their racketeering activities around Mosul.”
Why the alliance between Assad and ISIS?
It was reported in April 2014 that ISIS was smuggling foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq to create the conditions for a Sunni-Shiite conflict. Analysts at the time pointed fingers towards the Assad regime and its partners in Tehran. Destabilizing Iraq is an Iranian strategic aim to strengthen its domination of Iraq and expand westward to the Levant.
In a further twist that implicates the Assad regime in collusion with ISIS, on 6th February 2015 the US Embassy in Syria accused the regime of supporting ISIS advance on Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. It tweeted:
“Reports indicate that the regime is making air-strikes in support of ISIL’s advance on Aleppo, aiding extremists against Syrian population,” said the post.
In a string of tweets, the U.S. embassy condemned Assad’s actions, saying he “will never be an effective counterterrorism partner.” Embassy operations have been suspended since 2012, but the Twitter account is still active.
It is a documented fact that in May and June 2011 the regime turned loose from its prisons hundreds of violent jihadists while arresting and killing peaceful secular activists.
According to media reports June 14 the Assad regime had refrained from attacking ISIS bases. A Syrian government adviser told the New York Times’ Anne Barnard this was indeed a deliberate policy designed to “tar” the broader opposition and “frame [the] choice” as either Assad or the extremists.
The Iranian puzzle
A question that puzzled Western observers was what would Iran’s motivation be to support a Sunni jihadist organizations like ISIS? In Syria, ISIS has forced the West to choose between the regime of Bashar al-Assad or a terrorist outfit. Given that choice, it was assumed that the West would back Assad, as did the Russians and the Chinese.
Cynically Iran is exploiting the Western fear of terrorism to make common cause with the West against ISIS.
But ample evidence exists to prove Iran’s collusion with Al Qaeda. The US 9/11 Commission Report, had already established that Iran “facilitated the transit of Al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, including future hijackers. Iran, according to the report, wished to conceal any past evidence of its cooperation with Sunni terrorists’ association with Al-Qaeda,” but these connections continued.
At ISIL’s headquarters in rural western Aleppo in March 2014 opposition forces discovered official documents, passports and SIM cards issued by the Iranian authorities to fighters from Chechnya and Kazakhstan. Doesn’t this suggest some kind of connection between ISIL leaders and Iranian intelligence, of which rank and file of ISIS are likely ignorant?
ISIS suddenly emerged in Syria, at a time when the collapse of Assad’s regime seemed imminent. The emergence of ISIS saved the Syrian regime by threatening the world that an alternative terrorist regime would replace Assad’s.
A report in the Economist magazine 21st June 14 explained how ISIS was less interested in toppling the Assad’s regime than fighting other groups. It has rarely targeted the Assad’s regime and not a single barrel bomb has been dropped by the regime on ISIS.
Iran gains from keeping ISIS alive. As long as the group survives, Iran can claim that their allies in Syria and Iraq are preventing a jihadist takeover — an argument that raises Tehran’s prestige and ensures it a degree of international support for their allies in both countries. This argument has so far worked.
In April 2015 UK Business Insider quoted Michael Pregent an analyst and former US Army intelligence officer as saying: “Iran needs the threat of ISIS and Sunni jihadist groups to stay in Syria and Iraq in order to become further entrenched in Damascus and Baghdad,”
With skilful PR, a little help from Tehran and Moscow, proceed to create an Islamic monster (ISIS), make the monster look more brutal than yourself and convince Western analysts, retired diplomats and army chiefs that you are the better option for Syria and say you are ready to fight the new monster. Soon they will use their influence to co-opt the Chief Arsonist in putting out the fires that he started in the first place.
Nehad Ismail is a UK based writer on Middle Eastern Issues