Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi writes: Almost every day on my Twitter feed, I come across allegations that the jihadis operating in Syria- in particular, the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) or “al-Qa’ida” more generally (by which Jabhat al-Nusra is meant as well)- are somehow in secret collaboration with the Assad regime, if not agents and creations of the regime.
Indeed, this theme appears to have been prominent at a Chicago Council event held yesterday. “For the first time in 3 years I hear something that makes sense from experts about Syria. Assad regime is helping al-Qa’ida. We might discover very soon Assad regime coordinating and supporting al-Qa’ida fighters,” tweeted Diana Rudha al-Shammary, covering the event live yesterday.
In a somewhat similar vein, Syria Report tweeted on February 3, commenting on the official al-Qa’ida Central (AQC) statement clarifying that ISIS has no links with AQC: “Their [ISIS’] leaders take orders from Assad’s intelligence.” On January 12, @TaziMorocco, a person who regularly interacts with me on Twitter, commented: “Assad Air Force Intelligence officers in Damascus decided in 2012 to create and supply ISIS thugs in order to destroy the rebellion.”
Given the widespread nature of these allegations, culminating in the recent opposition-in-exile’s report claiming Assad-ISIS collaboration, I believe it to be worth addressing the claims. I will deal with each of the main lines of argument used to advance the thesis.
It is appropriate to state the following as a virtual preface. There is no doubt that the jihadi presence in Syria- whether in the form of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the multiple muhajireen-led battalions- is useful to the Assad’s narrative on the rebellion as a foreign-backed “takfiri/Wahhabi” conspiracy against Syria.
It is also clear that the regime has tried to exploit this presence to compel the opposition-in-exile at the Geneva talks into accepting that Assad should stay in power, and that the regime and opposition should instead work together to crush ISIS et al.- an opportunity that Assad hopes could quell the entire rebellion and reassert control over the whole country, which has been and remains his goal.
However, it must be noted that it is not only these groups with global jihadi visions that serve his narrative, but also the Islamic Front (IF), which may well be the largest single rebel coalition on the ground, with some blurring between the national/transnational distinction. The IF’s main leaders, backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all engage in virulently sectarian rhetoric, labeling Alawites as “Nusayris” and Shi’a as “Rafidites” (e.g. see these remarks by Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush).
The mere existence of such rhetoric and the IF’s prominence- regardless of what happens on the ground- are enough to provide considerable credence to the regime’s characterization of the opposition as sectarian. Further, the sectarian rhetoric of the IF has translated to results on the ground, most recently with reports of a massacre of Alawites in the Hama village of Ma’an after it was taken over by Ahrar ash-Sham in coordination with Jund al-Aqsa- a battalion with an ideology identical to that of ISIS but maintaining better relations overall than ISIS maintains with other rebel groups. [Continue reading…]