Did Bashar al-Assad help to create ISIL?

by omouggos

What role did Bashar al-Assad play in the emergence of ISIL? (image from cnn.com)

There are numerous ‘conspiracy’ theories floating around the web pertaining to ISIL. Many of them link the creation of ISIL, even its current operation, to either Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia or Turkey. Regardless of the validity of such theories, they are at least consistent with the fact that ISIL and these nations share a common enemy, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

However, in the Sunni Arab world, there is another conspiracy theory, one that links ISIL and Assad! At first glance such a theory seems rather absurd. Why would Assad create or cooperate with ISIL? Are not both groups separated by a sectarian chasm of hatred with one being Alawite (Shiite) and the other Sunni? Well apparently to many Sunni Arabs this is not the case.

A recent article by Baria Alamuddin clearly lays out the reasoning for such a theory.[1] She writes:

“In the years after 2003, Assad acted as gatekeeper for the influx of Sunni jihadists into Iraq. The Syrian regime thus had close links with the leadership of these groups, and sought to exploit these ties to further its own aims.

When the population of Syria turned against Assad, the regime released thousands of Sunni extremists from jail, thus nurturing the Islamist bogeyman about which it was warning foreign governments. Assad falsely claimed that his opponents were radical extremists, so in the ultimate Machiavellian move, he created his own enemy.”

Alamuddin goes on to claim that ISIL and the Assad regime have “studiously avoided fighting each other” and that the latter, along with Iran, have been buying oil from ISIL. She concludes that the two “are necessary enemies in a perfectly symbiotic relationship.

I could easily dismiss Alamuddin’s thesis as being born out of Sunni prejudices against the Shiite regime of Assad and out of a subconscious desire to absolve the Sunni Arab world of any culpability in the emergence of ISIL. I could counter that while she points out the oil connection between ISIL and Iran and Syria (a seemingly unsubstantiated one at that), she curiously fails to mention the oil connection between ISIL and Turkey (a Sunni nation). I guess this “conventional narrative” about ISIL is unimportant to her.

However, if I am to be fair, it would take a significant amount of research to definitively refute her thesis. Furthermore could it not be possible that Assad has bought oil from ISIL or that he sees them as a ‘useful’ enemy against the other rebel groups opposed to him? Isn’t it an intriguing suggestion that the ISIL bogeyman is the only remaining justification for the existence of Assad’s regime in the eyes of Western powers, and as long as ISIL exists, Assad has an viable excuse to persist in power?

Interestingly enough Amir Taheri, a noted Iranian author, explained in a speech how the Assad regime actually enabled the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is traditionally at odds with the Alawites.[2] By facilitating Sunni Islamists in Syria, Assad hoped to goad his follow Alawites, along with other Syrian minorities (Christians, Ismailis and Druze), into supporting him for fear that Sunni Islamists would come to power and persecute these minority groups. Furthermore, this Machiavellian strategy was also expected to garner support from the West.

Taheri also states that as part of Assad’s policy, “the regime started releasing large numbers of militant Sunni Islamists, among them many future leaders of the Islamic Sate Caliphate (or ISIS).” Such statements from a seemingly credible and knowledgeable source such as Taheri, lend a degree of credence to Alamuddin’s claims that Assad fostered ISIL, at least to a certain degree.

It is possible that Assad did have some role to play in the emergence of ISIL, in particular by releasing jihadists who later formed or joined ISIL. And it is also possible that Assad is currently utilizing ISIL, in a divide and conquer manner, to fight and weaken other rebel groups (such as the FSA, Jabat al-Nusra, etc.) which are a more immediate threat to his political and physical existence than ISIL.

However, such a possibility does not necessitate that Assad is in cahoots with ISIL. With respect to the origin of the latter, Assad’s actions may have been nothing more than a miscalculation, as at the time ISIL did not exist in the manner we know of today, and Assad probably did not intend or even foresee the emergence of a ‘super’ Sunni Islamist group such as them.

On the matter of Assad’s current use of ISIL to weaken the other rebel groups, this is a tactic that has been commonly used throughout history, by the British, the Byzantine and even the Sunni Arabs themselves. Furthermore, when the other rebel groups are sufficiently weaken, then he and the Russians can focus their full power on dealing with ISIL. As well, as far as I can tell, Assad and the Russians are in fact fighting against ISIL. While such tactics are unscrupulous to say the least, Assad is no moralist, he is a political survivor who will do whatever he deems necessary to remain in power.

The problem with Alamuddin’s theory, which is shared by many other Sunni Arabs, is not that it is completely false, as there is probably a certain measure of truth in it. The problem with it, is that it is used by Sunnis to completely blame Assad for the Syrian Civil War and to absolve themselves of any negative role in the conflict.

It should be realized that even the truth, or particularly a partial truth, can be used for deception. While Assad does bear some guilt, possibly a significant amount, in the origin and maintenance of the conflict, so do the rebel groups and their Sunni backers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, among others. But listening to Alamuddin and other Sunni Arabs, one gets the impression that the Sunnis are innocent victims and Assad is the greatest evil to ever exist in the Middle East.

Unfortunately the Syrian Civil War is not a story from mythology in which one side is perfectly good and the other completely evil. We do not have white knights in shiny armor valiantly battling against hideous orcs. The situation is much more complicated than that.

No matter which group one decides to support or side with, whether it be Assad, the FSA, other ‘moderate’ rebel groups or even the Kurds, all of these groups, to varying extents, have their own blemishes. Among many people the only certainty appears to be that ISIL is the main evil in the conflict and the region, but such a reasonable belief does little to help us find a ‘good’ alternative to combat them.

The other problem is that it is difficult to determine the truth in Syria simply because their are numerous contradictory narratives floating around. The Russians, Iranians and Assad are saying one thing, the Turks, Saudis and rebel groups another. It would take an erudite expert working full time to sift through the propaganda and to approach the reality of the situation.

What hope do Western observers such as ourselves have in making sense of the muddled situation in Syria? With all this in mind maybe now you can understand why many Westerners are ‘isolationists’ and want nothing to do geopolitically with the mess that is the Middle East.

O Mouggos


[1] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2016/01/30/The-other-ISIS.html

[2] http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/7408/syria-past-future