Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The IS factor

As the wind shifts in regional politics, the world’s major powers seem to be relenting on whether Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad should be allowed to stay in office, writes Bassel Oudat from Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since it sprang into being in April 2013, the Islamic State group, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as IS, ISIL and ISIS, has made quite a name for itself.

With its mixture of brutality and media savvyness, it has preyed on the minds of the young and desperate, the alienated and the disillusioned, and brought in foreigners to co-opt and coerce its way to creating a Swiss-cheese shaped “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.

Its deeds and misdeeds have won it converts, as well as the abiding disdain of the majority of moderate Muslims, and drawn the concerted air strikes of a regional and international coalition determined to destroy it.

In its latest efforts to end IS abominations, the West now seems to be shifting its position on the Syrian crisis. Instead of identifying the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as the root of the human tragedy in Syria, Russia and reluctantly the US, with perhaps France joining the trend, are beginning to float the idea that it would be easier to defeat IS if Al-Assad were allowed to stay in power.

The idea has been met with indignation by the Syrian opposition, with many railing against the notion that the man who started the carnage in the country should be rewarded at its end.

According to members of the Syrian opposition interviewed by the Weekly, IS is not the main scourge facing the Syrian people. Al-Assad is the main culprit, they say, and IS is only advancing his agenda, as well as that of Iran.

The story of IS turning from an offshoot of Al-Qaeda into a runaway organisation in its own right is known to all. But what remains the subject of intense speculation is the nature of the forces aiding and abetting the ultra-radical Sunni group.

Some speak of IS in terms of a global tide of radical Islam, a faction of those seeking to bring back the caliphate. Other analysts and intelligence groups point to the close collaboration between the IS leadership and former members of the military of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Others still speculate about the connections between IS and the intelligence services of Syria and Iran.

The idea of re-imposing the caliphate has surfaced in various parts of the Muslim world, including Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Somalia. Globalist jihadists flitting around the world in search of a holy war to join and groups of starry-eyed recruits seeking martyrdom or unfettered power on earth, whatever comes first, have become fixtures of the international news media.

What keeps IS going, however, is not just its foreign recruits, or the easy plunder of state resources on the ground, but rather the connivance of local politicians, connections with arms suppliers and training by intelligence and military experts. All of these remain shrouded in secrecy, but there are signs that IS’s staying power has everything to do with the need of the Syrian regime to create panic and save its own skin.

Some have portrayed IS as a cohesive organisation with a solid power structure, although things on the ground suggest otherwise. In fact, the group’s tactics seem to change from one place to another, suggesting that it may be just a conglomeration of franchises, some of which are supported and helped by outsiders, including those with close links to Syrian and Iranian intelligence.


OVERLAPPING INTERESTS: Nawwaf Al-Faris, a former Syrian ambassador to Iraq and current leader of the Sons of Syria Rally, or the Tagammu Abnaa Syria, believes that IS includes many random elements.

“IS was not made by the Syrian regime, but there are overlapping interests,” he said. According to Al-Faris, the Syrian regime is using IS to undermine the country’s moderate opposition and denigrate the revolution.

“Syrian intelligence knows a lot about this organisation and its structure, as it does about all the other extremist groups, and it has infiltrated and invested heavily in all of them,” he added.

Examining IS exploits in Syria over the past two years, it is not hard to notice that this group and its former ally, Al-Nusra Front, have never made any serious challenge to the regime. In fact, the only thing IS has done is to divert attention from the regime’s continuing brutality.

While IS advertises its thirst for blood, the regime has been acting more quietly, exterminating people by the thousands and forcing millions to flee their homes. While IS has been grabbing the headlines, the regime has been following through on its inexorable agenda, shelling residential areas and dropping barrel bombs on unarmed civilians.

While IS has been drawing fire from the international coalition, the regime has been bringing in Iranian troops and allied militias to attack the local opposition and smash the organised resistance of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Because of IS, the regime has been able to portray the Syrian revolution as being led by terrorists. Foreign powers have come to see the FSA as a largely useless force and not worth the training or the weapons that could potentially unseat Al-Assad.

Not all IS operations help the regime, but all help IS shareholders and those who want to destabilise the region or retain a foothold in Syria. The Russians benefit because the IS threat is what keeps Al-Assad in power, and the Iranians benefit because the radical Sunni threat is what allows them to send Shiite outfits into action on Syrian soil.

As a result of IS’s bloody practices, most Western countries, especially the US and Russia, are now going after the group — thus accepting implicitly the regime’s claims that it is keeping the country together, or could keep it together if it were allowed to have its share in its future.

But when the tally is made by various local and international human rights groups, it becomes clear who is really devastating the country. For all its gory propaganda, IS is not even a far second to the regime’s infliction of atrocities.

In all, 96.3 per cent of all civilian casualties in Syria have been killed by the regime, 0.8 per cent have been killed by IS, 2.2 per cent by Al-Nusra Front, 1.3 per cent by the Syrian armed opposition and 0.2 per cent by Kurdish groups.

At the core of Syria’s suffering, one finds not IS — for all its horrors — but the Syrian regime. The Al-Assad regime has killed over 300,000 people using artillery and aerial bombing, illegal weapons and barrels filled with explosives. It has razed 60 per cent of the infrastructure of the country and forced one third of the population out of their homes.

KOWTOWING TO IS: The regime has succeeded in scaring the West with its open invitation to foreign jihadists to come to the country, its release from jail of hundreds of hardened militants and its crushing of the secular resistance and tacit kowtowing to IS.

In the first year of the revolution, the regime released well-known Islamist militants from prison, giving them back their freedom in three consecutive stages. Some of these figures later helped turn the revolution from a peaceful one, the original intention, into an armed struggle, thus handing the regime the opportunity to denounce the protestors as terrorists.

The Islamists that the regime freed from prison had already fought in the war against the Americans in Iraq, and had the military experience and international connections needed to foment the jihadist quest in the country.

Louay Safi, a former spokesman for the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), said the emergence of the jihadists corrupted the course of the Syrian revolution.

“In the first two years, the revolution developed separately from the influence of the Islamist groups. The protestors made it clear that their wish was to remove a corrupt, sectarian and tyrannical regime from power in a peaceful manner,” he said.

According to Safi, the opposition wanted to turn Syria into a pluralistic democracy and was willing to see the transition made through an interim governing body with full executive powers, a strategy that was agreed upon at the Geneva Conference on Syria. But the regime scuttled the agreement.

“We haven’t seen any real cooperation from the regime or true support from Russia or America. The only force that stood up to IS from day one — even before the group expanded in Syria and Iraq — was the FSA,” Safi said. Unfortunately, the FSA failed to gain the necessary support from the Americans, who confined their assistance to “non-lethal” forms of support.

Sayeed Moqbil, a key opposition figure, said that IS and the regime are not fighting each other. Instead, both are fighting the Syrian people. “The extremist Islamist groups are fighting the Syrian people with more zeal than that they apply to fighting the regime,” he said.

According to Moqbil, jihadist groups, including IS, don’t have the firepower of the regime. “The responsibility of such criminal groups is limited. They don’t have the firepower of the regime, and they have no control over heavily populated areas,” Moqbil added.

“The regime, while confronting and distorting the course of the revolution, has adopted a policy of scorched earth since day one. It has confronted peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins and protests with bullets and tanks. It has besieged and starved areas deemed unfriendly, using them for target practice and subjecting them to barrel bombs,” he said.

According to Moqbil, the Al-Assad regime is overwhelmingly responsible for killing and displacing the Syrian people. “This is a fact. Those who deny it may recall the way the Fatah Al-Islam group was born in Tripoli, Lebanon, and the way the Ghuraba Al-Sham, another militia outfit, was born in Aleppo, Syria. All these outfits were created by Syrian intelligence,” Moqbil said.

He also noted how the regime has given strategic areas to IS without a fight, or offering only a token resistance. “Remember who opened the prisons to release extremist Islamists. Remember who refused to confront IS, but rather gave it control of the towns of Al-Raqqa, Deir Al-Zur and Palmyra and the entire Iraqi border areas,” he added.


MISMATCHED PRIORITIES: Fawwaz Tallo, a key Syrian opposition figure, believes that the US view of Syria has nothing to do with the interests of Syrians.

“The US doesn’t consider the Iranian regime and its military allies in the Arab world as terrorists. The US doesn’t see the Syrian regime as a threat. It is obsessed with IS,” he said.

According to Tallo, the US wants minorities in the Arab world to take control under any formula, democratic or otherwise. “The US is not opposed to the idea of a Shiite minority controlling the Sunni world,” Tallo said.

Like Tallo, many in the Syrian opposition are puzzled by the idea that the Syrian regime may have a role in the fight against IS and perhaps in the succeeding political arrangement. That a group that has killed nearly 3,000 Syrians is seen as a bigger threat than a regime that has killed 300,000 seems outrageous.

But in the murky waters of international politics, where the Americans fear but promote the Iranians, where Europe has been inundated with immigrants but cannot get its act together to remove the Syrian regime, and where the Russians want to revive their foothold in the region, even at the expense of the majority of the population, the legitimate but mismatched hopes of the Syrian people take second place.

In Syria, only the priorities of the powerful are being served.

add comment

  • follow us on