Four years ago, Syrians flocked to the streets, defying the reign of terror that had been installed over decades of Assad rule. Since then, however, counter-revolutionary movements co-opted the legitimate mass mobilisation against the Syrian regime. As Assad pushed for a military confrontation, extremist groups gained ground in Syria while non-sectarian rebels have been fought off from all sides. The counter-revolutionary war nurtured the extremes: on the one hand, pro-Assad fascism; on the other Islamic extremism.
In all this, little attention has been given to the nature of the war between Assad and the extremist jihadi movements, specifically the Islamic State group (IS, formerly Isis). Last month, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah said they to understand who is behind IS is to ask who benefits from its existence.
It is certainly worth pondering, by that standard, how Assad is benefitting from IS. In doing so, this article does not seek to reduce the rise of IS to Assad’s malevolent politics. Instead, it refutes power-knitted arguments that victimises the Syrian regime in any anti-extremism debate. Alternatively, it questions the role and responsibility of power, monopolised by Assad, in the counter-revolution of IS and al-Qaeda in Syria.
Business as usual: Oil and gas
In early 2014, reports emerged that the Syrian regime has funded and co-operated with al-Qaeda in a complex double game. That was happening while rebels back then were at the outskirts of Damascus.
One of the most obvious fields of co-operation between the two sides is oil and gas trade. ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, occupied several major oil fields in Syria. However, the extremist movements had to sell their oil, and the most immediately available buyer was across the battlefront. In March 2013, al-Nusra Front seized control of significant oil fields in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour. Since then, al-Nusra managed to sell oil for millions of dollars that helped fund its operations.
According to a report in The Telegraph, an intelligence source from Western secret services said that “the regime was paying al-Nusra to protect oil and gas pipelines under al-Nusra’s control in the north and east of the country, and is also allowing the transport of oil to regime-held areas”. To be fair, the same source admitted that the relationship between Assad and extremist groups is hostile, yet opportunistic. The Times quotes Robin Mills, from Manaar Energy in Dubai, suggesting that the group is directly doing business with the regime.
Several leaked documents reveal signed agreements between al-Qaeda affiliated groups and the Syrian regime; mainly oil and gas agreements. IS went further in its business. A report in International Business Times reveals that IS has managed to sell oil for brokers and middlemen in Turkey, who in turn supply other countries in the Middle East – including Israel. At its peak, IS made three million dollars a day, according to the Royal United Services Institute. That, of course, went down with the recent military setbacks and the US-led air strikes.
More recent reports provide evidence of cooperation that goes beyond oil trade. The Syrian regime is not only buying oil from ISIS, but also companies on behalf of the regime are assisting in the operation of oil and gas facilities. An engineering company owned by George Haswani has been operating a gas plant in Tabqa, which was captured by ISIS last August. The facility continues to supply areas controlled by Assad. This is one case of many middlemen on Assad’s payroll. The Telegraph report on the matter suggests that the Syrian regime has sometimes paid back for the oil by supplying IS-held areas with electricity.
Assad’s act of kindness: nurturing the extremists
Other than oil trade, what was seen as an act of kindness by the Syrian regime in the early days of the Syrian uprising was actually a strategic step to empower extremist groups over the democratic mobilisation in Syrian towns and cities. Assad has strategically released prisoners affiliated with extremist groups, who are now playing leading roles in the battle.
Numerous leading Syrian fighters in the current war fought previously in Iraq. The extremists did not come out of the blue, nor were they parachuted from Gulf countries as the Syrian regime would like us to think. They were given grounds to mobilise, organise, and go fight in Iraq by the Syrian regime at the time when Assad felt that he is next after Saddam Hussein.
After toppling Saddam, “Bush thinks the war in Iraq has ended”, Bashar said, “but we believe it has just started”. Afterwards, fatwas all over Syria were issued urging Syrians for jihad in Iraq against the Americans and their allies.
At that time, busloads carried new jihadists from Syria to Iraq. This, logistically, couldn’t have happened without the consent of the last Baathist regime in the region, desperate to survive a “new Middle East” as former US secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once announced. Cities across Syria mobilised, under the banner of Islam.
Mohammed Habash, a Syrian scholar and politician, interviewed Sheikh Abu al-Qaaqaa Qul Agassi, who inspired Aleppo’s young men at that time with his scorching speeches in al-Sakhur Mosque. After mobilising men in Aleppo, he led military training at the same mosque. He was later supported by Major General Dib Zaitoun, chief of intelligence in Syria, to go with his men and fight over the borders.
Habash claims that Zaitoun himself admitted that he personally facilitated Abu al-Qaaqaa’s trip to Afghanistan. The role which the Syrian regime played in making the life of the Americans in Iraq a living hell is perceived by Zaitoun as one of “Syrian security’s shining successes”.
Returning from Iraq disillusioned and devastated, Syrian jihadi fighters were imprisoned en masse and put in torture chambers by the regime. Their earlier hatred towards the West turned into hatred towards Assad. In one prominent case, the Sednaya prison in the North of Damascus became a hub for jihadist movements. In 2008, prisoners started a full-scale rebellion that lasted for months, with dozens of casualties and hostages.
Those same “rebels” were later freed by the regime at the beginning of the peaceful revolution of the Syrian people. Zahran Aloush, Hassan Abboud, Ahmad Issa al-Sheikh, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani and Abu Huzaifa al-Daeshi – now leaders of Syria’s major rebel groups – served their time in the Islamist-filled cells of Baathist prisons. Even if the regime did not directly plan their re-emergence as leaders of rebel groups in the war – some of which were al-Qaeda affiliated, Assad at least knew that those fighters would be fighting his forces soon, as well as eradicating what was left of poorly-armed non-sectarian revolutionaries.
Syria Air Force intelligence chief General Jamil Hasad, who defected in 2011 told Michael D. Weiss that the “[infiltrated] jihadist groups and brigades were very useful for the regime because they provided a justification for the regime’s insistence on a military solution, and provided some legitimacy under the cover of the War on Terror”.
A brutal proxy war
Assad’s role in the rise of IS and al-Qaeda in Syria’s revolutionary setting does not exonerate regional countries who directly and indirectly funded and supported sectarian extremism. It is important to realise how both camps, Syria and its regional rivals, pushed for a proxy war in Syria at the expense of a legitimate revolution. Both camps in a regional geopolitical contest saw in a proxy war a more favourable and less existential endeavour than that of a people’s uprising against brutal and illegitimate dictatorships.
Those same fighters released by Assad were supported by Assad’s rivals in the Arab World. The proxy war that Syria and its people are engulfed in neither undermines the legitimacy and courage of their peaceful revolution nor legitimises Assad’s claim of fighting terrorists.
There must be no claim that hides the truth confronting power. The truth is that power seeks to resist revolutions at any cost. And Assad is yet, if ever, to serve justice and compensate the immeasurable cost of his reign.