By accident or design, ISIS is helping Assad

James Traub writes: I’ve spent much of the last week in Antakya, an ancient city, known to Byzantine Christians as Antioch, which now serves as a bivouac for Syrian rebel fighters and a jumping-off point for journalists and humanitarian actors working in Syria, which lies 20 miles to the west. One subject preoccupies everyone in the Turkish town: not the brutality of the regime in Damascus, but the nihilistic violence of the foreign jihadi group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Firas Tammim, a native of the Syrian city of Latakia who now brings medical supplies and other goods to the region, said to me, “I don’t want to say Assad is better, but at least he didn’t arrest or kill people because they were smoking.” Tammim showed me a picture on his phone of a crowd of villagers, including children, witnessing an ISIS beheading of an alleged infidel. “Think what this does to these children,” he said. Over time, Tammim said, Syrians are becoming inured to what they once would have found unspeakable.

ISIS appears to have up to 8,000 soldiers in Syria, a tiny number compared with the 100,000 or so rebel fighters. But the group’s medieval ideology, as well as its pathological obsession with enforcing Islamist rectitude in the towns and cities its soldiers have infiltrated, has made it a source of terror. One evening I was sitting at an outdoor cafe where a grizzled man was steadily smoking a hookah and shooting jets of tobacco smoke through his nostrils. He called himself Abu Abdul, and he was a fighter with a brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the “moderate” forces backed by the West. We talked about the jihadists. Then he said something else. “He asks that you not mention the name of his brigade,” my interpreter said. “Everyone is scared of ISIS.”

President Bashar al-Assad has received two enormous gifts in recent months. The first is the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons, which distracted attention from his relentless campaign to kill and terrorize his enemies and also compelled Western governments to work with him as the country’s legitimate ruler. The second is ISIS, which has also deflected attention away from the war between the regime and the rebels and has vindicated as nothing else could Assad’s persistent claim that he is confronting, not political opponents, but “terrorists,” as his foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, recently claimed at the United Nations.

For this reason, it has become a fixed conviction in Antakya that ISIS functions as a secret arm of the regime. This sounds like an all-too-understandable conspiracy theory, yet even Western diplomats I’ve spoken to consider it plausible, if scarcely proved. In the summer of 2012, Assad released from prison a number of jihadists who had fought with al Qaeda in Iraq and who are thought to have helped formed ISIS. Reporters, activists, and fighters also note that while regime artillery has flattened the FSA’s headquarters in Aleppo, the ISIS camp next door was left untouched until the jihadi group left; the same is true in the fiercely contested eastern city of Raqqa. ISIS, for its part, has done very little to liberate regime-held areas, but has seized control of both Raqqa and the border town of Azaz from FSA forces. [Continue reading…]

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