Wars can make strange bedfellows out of erstwhile enemies but if Western-backed Syrian rebels are to be believed, the Syrian conflict has thrown up one of the strangest ever wartime alliances, featuring Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and jihadists such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the militant Sunni leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) who wants to shape and rule over an emirate stretching across the Levant.
The allegation would seem to be as fantastic as something dreamed up by the scriptwriters of Homeland. After all, Assad and al-Baghdadi are members of warring religious sects from the main schism in Islam—the Syrian president is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and al-Baghdadi is a Sunni who excoriates Shiites and Alawites.
The Syrian civil war has certainly strengthened al-Baghdadi and he is not alone in benefiting—al Qaeda is enjoying a renaissance on the back of Syria’s conflict. But according to Western-backed rebels, the rise of al Qaeda in Syria is all part of Assad’s dark plan. According to rebel spokesman Munzer Akbik, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are “regime-made terrorist organizations” that “the Assad regime inserted into the body of the revolution.”
As the Western-backed rebels tell it, Assad had the foresight to help jihadists infiltrate insurgent ranks so that he would be able to support his claim that he is battling an uprising by terrorists.
This flies in the face of the obvious. As the authors of a recent study for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, put it: “Assad is the perfect al Qaeda villain. He is an Alawite and therefore a heretic, he is a secularist and therefore an apostate, and he is conducting a war without quarter against much of his Sunni population.”
And for more than a year now, al-Baghdadi’s al Qaeda offshoot ISIS, along with the al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra, have battled Syrian government forces. Some of the rebels’ biggest military successes in the war, including the 2012 capture of Menagh air base outside the Syrian city of Aleppo, have been in large part due to jihadst tactics and effectiveness. In fact there have been few major military gains that have not involved jihadists, say military analysts.
In the Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border, jihadists from ISIS and al Nusra are fighting alongside Islamist and more moderate rebels to try to contain a government offensive that could soon see the retaking of the strategic town of Yabrud. “There are no differences in Yabrud between us," an Islamist rebel named Alain told The Daily Beast while recuperating from wounds in a makeshift clinic in the Lebanese border town of Arsal this month. “I know you are singling out jihadists but we are the same.” This past weekend, ISIS fighters in Qalamoun proudly displayed on the Internet the weaponry they claimed to have seized from government troops, including 122mm mortars.
Jihadists were in the vanguard of the rearguard defense of nearby Qusair in the summer, accounting largely for the high death toll among fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant Shia movement and Assad ally.
Despite this, the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has been firing off press releases claiming Assad and al-Baghdadi and al Qaeda are in secret alliance. In fact, not just an alliance but also that Assad helped create ISIS, which was recently disowned by al Qaeda’s top leadership, although not because of purported ties with the Syrian regime.
SNC officials have made much of December remarks by Assad to lawyers visiting from Jordan that he has “allies and fighters working for him even within the ranks of opposition.”
Infiltration, though, may well taint all main rebel factions. Rebels in Aleppo suspect that a December airstrike that killed noted Islamist commander Abdulkader al-Saleh was guided by intelligence from either fifth columnists or defectors within his own group.
Most major media outlets have ignored the allegations of a complex double game underway between Assad and al Qaeda, dismissing them as propaganda, or as an inspired but misplaced effort by the SNC to blame Assad for the jihadist presence in rebel ranks and the religiosity of many other rebel brigades. The jihadist presence and Islamist militancy has not helped the rebels to persuade the West to back them with the scale of arms supplies they will need to defeat Syrian government forces: The U.S. government worries about leakage of advanced weaponry to al-Baghdadi and al Nusra, fearing the weapons will eventually be used against the West.
But the dam started to crack late last month when a handful of Western media outlets started to run with the allegation of ties between Assad and al Qaeda in the Syria civil war. Noticeably, the Western outlets pushing the storyline favor a more proactive U.S. and European military policy in Syria. Al Arabiya television and other media outlets controlled by the Saudi royal family have also been at the forefront of disseminating the claims—ironic considering the kingdom has been accused of doing nothing to prevent Saudi jihadists joining the fight in Syria.
The reports make much of Assad’s marriage of convenience with al Qaeda during the early part of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, allowing Syria to be used as a safe haven for attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces—though some experts maintain that Assad was careful to ensure the jihadists were tightly controlled.
With the backdrop of the vicious rebel infighting that erupted last month between ISIS and a loose alliance of moderate and Islamist rebels—an internecine struggle that has helped Assad—the allegation of Assad-ISIS ties has been gaining traction, triggering a ferocious online onslaught of Tweets and blog postings broadcasting the double-game claims. The conspiracy-minded on the Internet are lapping it up.
But there are problems with the SNC storyline and the truth may well be more complicated—a testimony to the murkiness of a conflict where front lines shift, local deals are struck, profiteering abounds and friends can become foes overnight and then revert back to being allies in what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry admitted recently had become a “huge sectarian mess.”
The major evidence cited by the SNC is that ISIS and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra have been selling oil to the regime from wells they control in eastern Syria and that Assad released some al Qaeda prisoners from Sednaya Prison near Damascus as the uprising against him began three years ago. Some of the inmates released, the rebels claim, are among the jihadists in northern and eastern Syria.
SNC officials also insist Assad’s warplanes have held off attacking jihadist bases.
“ISIS is closely linked to the terrorist regime and serves the interests of the clique of President Bashar al-Assad, whether directly or indirectly,” the SNC said in one recent statement. “The murder of Syrians by this group leaves no doubt about the intentions behind their creation, their objectives, and the agendas.”
The drumbeat of accusation has been maintained by the SNC and ambivalences such as “whether directly or indirectly” have been ironed out, although since al Nusra joined in the fight against ISIS, some officials have started to drop mentioning of al Nusra in the Assad tie-up allegations. Last week, SNC Vice President Nora Al-Ameer said the rebels are determined to combat “terrorism… the one that was created and nourished by Assad, who oversaw the creation of ISIS.”
So is it conceivable that ISIS and/or al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra are agents of Assad, fifth columnists infiltrated to wreck the rebellion, provoke infighting, and taint the uprising in the eyes of the West?
Certainly al Qaeda has been ready to make common cause before with foes or the ideologically suspect, including criminal groups, when it has served operational purposes or longer-tem objectives.
And al Qaeda was happy to accept assistance from Assad when fighting the Americans in Iraq. Al Qaeda groups and Shiite Iran have entered into accommodations, too, at various times. But the evidence presented so far by the SNC leaves many analysts unimpressed, although coalition spokesman insist they have documentary proof of coordination between Assad and jihadists that they will eventually offer, even if they have thus far have failed to do so.
Take the oil deals between jihadists and Assad. Reports first surfaced back in May last year that al Nusra was selling oil to the regime. The Guardian quoted a rebel commander saying the Syrian regime was paying $2.2 million to Jabhat al Nusra “to guarantee oil is kept pumping through two major oil pipelines.”
But al Nusra is not alone among the rebels to trade with the regime. All rebel factions occupying wells have done so, notes Aymenn Al-Tamimi of the Middle East Forum, a U.S.-based think tank, in a blog posting. “They deal with the regime in selling oil and gas, not because they wish to bolster the regime, but rather because such a transaction is the simplest and most logical way to exploit these resources.”
Cash allows them to pay fighters and bribe local allies to ensure they remain loyal and it allows them to buy guns and other materiel. Both ISIS and al Nusra have secured the loyalty of local tribes along the border with Iraq by offering cheap or free oil, according to Western intelligence sources.
And it isn’t just oil where there is wheeling and dealing between rebel factions and the Assad government. In the divided city of Aleppo, Western-favored insurgents as well as Islamists have traded profitably with the regime for supplies, admit rebel commanders.
More suspicious, some analysts believe, is the early release by Assad of some jihadists from jail, prompting the claim that the Syrian president was hoping to strengthen jihadist groups in the rebellion, allowing him later—as he has indeed done—to present himself as an embattled combatant of terrorists trying to ravage Syria.
But a full list of names has not been provided by the SNC and top ISIS and al Nusra commanders weren’t in Syrian jails. Most of the commanders al-Baghdadi surrounds himself with are trusted Iraqis or Chechens, according to rebel sources.
Equally, there is little evidence to support the SNC contention that Assad’s air force hasn’t attacked ISIS fighters or their bases. In January Syrian warplanes struck at ISIS fighters when they launched attacks on the 17th brigade north of the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa and they launched air raids on the town on February 7th. The town of al-Bab, a jihadist stronghold northeast of Aleppo, has been pounded by airstrikes for weeks.
While acknowledging that the presence of the jihadists has served Assad in propaganda terms and has helped to dissuade the West to offer major military support, analyst Brian Fishman, a fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, argues there is a difference between “an explicit partnership or an implicit alignment of interests.” He maintains: “The more important story about the rise of al Qaeda in Syria is that the opposition and their supporters made the tragic strategic blunder of tolerating and sometimes enabling al Qaeda linked organizations.”