In the week since Al-Qaeda spinoff the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) brought Iraq back into international headlines by seizing around a third of the country in a matter of hours, there has understandably been a great deal of soul-searching and hair-pulling as to how a group that was supposed to have been “decimated,” in a country that was supposed to be last decade’s headache, has once again managed with just a few hundred men to humiliate an army many times its size and generally outfox the entire world.
Fingers have been hastily pointed in every direction, with culprits found ranging from the timeless “conspiracy” (in the Iraqi prime minister’s words) to Tony Blair (who took to his website Saturday to cantankerously declare his complete innocence of all charges). An increasingly widespread claim – appealing perhaps because of its ring of an ironic morality tale about imperial folly – has it that ISIS’ growth is in fact the doing of the West’s closest but most duplicitous Arab allies, the oleaginous Gulf dictatorships, who have done to us once again what they’ve been doing since they backed the Afghan Mujahideen that nurtured Bin Laden in the 1980s. Will we ever learn?
Lost in this din, driven more by the grinding of old axes than dispassionate consideration of the evidence, is the obvious fact that one man has contributed vastly more than anyone else to getting ISIS where it is today: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
First, though, it’s worth exploring the Gulf hypothesis, because like any popular misconception, it does contain elements of truth. It’s unquestionably the case, as Josh Rogin argued in The Daily Beast on Saturday, that the Gulf monarchs make little if any real effort to prevent their more pious subjects from sending considerable sums of money to extremist outfits, including ISIS. That a Kuwaiti man named Ghanim al-Mteiri had no objection to going on the record to the New York Times in November about his financing of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s official Al-Qaeda franchise, says everything that needs to be said about the Al-Sabah regime’s commitment to what Rogin still calls the “war on terror.”
But this is not the same as saying – as Rogin’s title (“America’s Allies Are Funding ISIS”) does, and as others such as Simon Henderson in Foreign Policy and Robert Fisk in The Independent have – that ISIS is actively and deliberately sponsored as a matter of policy by the Saudis and other Gulf rulers and should be thought of as no more than a proxy created to advance Riyadh’s regional ambitions. Quite to the contrary: ISIS has long been at war with Saudi’s actual clients in Syria, the Islamic Front and what is loosely called the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who have successfully driven it out of much of its former turf in the north. Indeed, among the many sources of hostility between ISIS and the other brigades is precisely the former’s rejection of Saudi intervention. While FSA leaders openly express gratitude for Riyadh’s help, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani mocks the Kingdom as a “state which claims to be Islamic,” and denounces as traitors all factions “supported by the Saudis, America, and the infidels of the West.”
Another cause of friction is the FSA’s frequent accusations of ISIS collaboration with the regime. Though this line of argument, too, can take irrational and conspiratorial forms, there are a number of incontrovertible facts that, taken in aggregate, suggest the “Assad-or-the-terrorists” dichotomy that so much guides (or misguides) Western policy toward Syria is not nearly as straightforward as we’re led to believe:
● For long periods of time, the regime largely spared ISIS’ bases from the kinds of aerial and other attacks it daily visits upon the rest of the country. A 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. As one ISIS defector told The Daily Telegraph, “We were confident that the regime would not bomb us. We always slept soundly in our bases.” He added, in a quote that didn’t make the final text, that ISIS had even been infiltrated by regime agents. “I know men who were officers in the police and Syrian intelligence branches who are now in ISIS. They grew long beards and joined.” Another good reason for Assad not to drop barrel bombs on them.
● According to the same Daily Telegraph report, both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have raised millions of dollars through sales of crude oil from fields under their control to the regime, a unique case of overt partnership between ISIS and a state actor.
● Although ISIS only officially formed in April 2013, its roots lie in Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the same group Assad paid and equipped in the mid-2000s to fight the Americans in precisely the region of Iraq now occupied by ISIS. In 2003, on the regime’s orders, Syria’s ordinarily mild-mannered Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro issued a gladiatorial fatwa calling for attacks, including suicide bombings, against the Americans in Iraq. Those who came back alive after making the trip over the border – following training and funding from the regime – were promptly thrown into Damascus’ notorious Sednaya prison upon their return. Years later, on May 31, 2011, Assad suddenly pardoned and released dozens of Sednaya’s most dangerous inmates, who predictably went on to become leaders in Islamist rebel brigades, including extremist ones. This was at the same time the regime was imprisoning, torturing, and indeed murdering the secular and nonviolent democracy activists out in the streets. What was going on? As Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s "Syria in Crisis" page, put it, “There are no random acts of kindness from this regime.”
● Nawaf al-Fares, the defected former Syrian ambassador to Iraq, has claimed the regime ordered a series of suicide bombings in Syria in 2012, carried out by the very jihadists he himself had sent to Iraq years previously. Again, the idea was to discredit the opposition, thereby duping the world into preferring Assad. “The Syrian government would like to use Al-Qaeda as a bargaining chip with the West,” he said, “to say: ‘it is either them or us.’” Another defector, former intelligence officer Afaq Ahmad, similarly recalls how “the jihadist groups and brigades” were “very useful for the regime,” which infiltrated them and even brokered non-aggression pacts with some of them.
To be clear, nobody is suggesting ISIS fighters are pure agents provocateurs, or that the regime doesn’t also kill them as and when expedient. Indeed, presumably realizing (or being told by “brotherly” Iran) after the fall of Iraq’s Mosul last week that ISIS had been allowed to grow stronger than intended, on Sunday Assad’s air force began bombing the group’s strongholds across northeastern Syria.
But that, if anything, only underlines the point that the regime knew the locations of those strongholds all this time. There simply is no other actor, not even the roundly assailed Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki, who has done so much for so long to directly facilitate ISIS’ rise. So far from facing a choice between “Assad and the terrorists,” in other words, Syrians – and now Iraqis too – suffer the latter precisely because they have for so long been plagued with the former.