With Friends Like These: Al Qaeda and the Assad Regime


Last week Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu accused the Syrian regime and the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) of being “in a partnership backstage,” a vaguely worded assertion that seems intentionally couched so that it can be read to imply an explicit partnership or an implicit alignment of interests. On the surface, the suggestion may seem ridiculous. Not only do jihadis excoriate Bashar al-Assad and the Alawite sect, but al-Qaeda itself has a long history of anti-Assad rhetoric. Nonetheless, there is an equally long history of jihadis striking operationally useful deals with various factions that they consider strategic enemies. Moreover, there should be very little debate that the jihadi presence in Syria, and particularly that of ISIS, benefits the Syrian regime.

Nonetheless, the accusations of an alliance have not been backed by hard evidence, which makes it difficult to give them much credence. That the Assad regime benefits politically from the specter of ISIS presence in Syria is clear, but that is not evidence that Assad is responsible for either the group’s creation or its clashes with fellow rebel organizations. (Though, it is easy to imagine the Syrian or Iranian intelligence services trying to sow internal discord among the opposition.) One might argue that it hardly matters whether Assad has struck a formal alliance with ISIS or simply finds ways to bolster the organization as it fights intramural battles against other rebels. Either way, Assad and ISIS are tacitly aligned. Although not erroneous, that is a shortsighted and narrow perspective on the conditions that have allowed ISIS, and other jihadis, to build such a strong foothold in Syria. For Western powers designing policy, a broader aperture—one that includes the support Syrian rebels and their backers have offered jihadi-affiliated groups—is necessary.

The Charge

The case that Assad is working with al-Qaeda in order to divide the Syrian opposition goes something like this: as described in the Sinjar Records (a cache of al-Qaeda in the Iraq personnel files captured and declassified in 2007), the Assad regime facilitated the movement of al-Qaeda foreign fighters into Iraq during the heart of the Iraqi insurgency. Since then, a smattering of Syrian defectors have affirmed that Assad’s regime facilitated al-Qaeda’s operations, including those of Abu Ghadiyah, one of the most notorious human smugglers. As the insurgency to unseat him developed, Assad—hoping to portray himself as a bulwark against a jihadi uprising in the region—actually supported the development of Jabhat al-Nusrah, ISIS, or both while facilitating some spectacular jihadi attacks in Damascus to make the jihadi threat seem more credible.  Moreover, Assad may have released various jihadis from prison, including Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (Mustafa Setmariam Nasar), a key ideologue, from custody in early 2012 in order to either spur the growth of jihadi groups or simply to warn the west of their danger. All of that cooperation has paid off today, the argument goes, because ISIS is waging war on anti-Assad rebels and is more focused on building an emirate in northern Syria than deposing Assad. In return, Assad does not bomb ISIS controlled territory.

The rebel Syrian National Coalition (SNC) summed it up, saying that:

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 murder of Syrians by this group leaves no doubt about the intentions behind their creation, their objectives, and the agendas they service, which is confirmed by the nature of their terrorist actions that are hostile to the Syrian revolution.

The Facts as they are Known

So, how accurate is this storyline?

Well, for starters it is plausible that an al-Qaeda affiliate would cut a deal with an Alawite regime like Assad’s, despite their incompatible ideologies. Al-Qaeda came to a limited accommodation with Iran a decade ago, despite al-Qaeda’s vigorous anti-Shi’a views and combat with Iranian proxies in Iraq and elsewhere. Moreover, elements of the Assad regime did enable jihadi smuggling of personnel into Iraq. It would be incorrect to assume that an al-Qaeda affiliate, holding a deeply sectarian ideology, could not collaborate with the Assad regime. Stranger things have happened.

But, the suggestion that an ISIS-Assad alliance is plausible is not evidence that an explicit relationship actually exists. The story is much more complicated. For example, it is true that the Assad regime enabled some smuggling of foreign fighters into Iraq, but there is evidence it may have tried to limit how strong those networks could grow. There was more than one smuggling network and they were tremendously varied: some of the facilitation networks were ideological and others criminal. One reasonable way of interpreting the limited data on Assad’s policy is that it favored the criminal smuggling networks in order to empower anti-American fighters in Iraq while limiting the strength of diehard jihadi smugglers active on Syrian territory. Likewise, the reports of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s release from a Syrian prison are uncorroborated and some analysts suggest he may still be confined. It is true that there have been several public statements attributed to jihadis that appear to have been fabricated by supporters of Assad. Reports that the Assad regime has released jihadis from prison with the intent of dividing the opposition and shares the benefits of a war economy with Jabhat al-Nusrah and other militants holding territory in Syria are backed only by anonymous sources, but reasonable. Nonetheless, that would hardly be the first time a Middle Eastern government released jihadis from prison in an amnesty of one kind or another. Jordan’s release of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the grandfather of ISIS, in the 1990s comes to mind. The further claim that the Assad regime does not target ISIS territory, despite being a common talking point among opposition figures, is thus far empirically unsubstantiated.

The Bottom Line

While absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, there is no public smoking gun that Assad is collaborating directly with ISIS.  The argument that they are in cahoots finds fertile soil because it is obvious that the Assad regime benefits from the presence of ISIS and other jihadis in Syria. There are three basic reasons:

  1. ISIS (and Jabhat al-Nusrah) is a poison pill for the rebellion that dissuades western powers from offering the opposition extensive support;
  2. The jihadi presence in Syria, by minimizing the prospect of a negotiated solution and promising scorched earth warfare, helps cement the internal cohesion of the Assad regime;
  3. ISIS attacks on other rebel factions divides the weak rebel coalition and further degrades its ability to challenge the regime.

The rebel struggle with ISIS ultimately boils down to the fact that ISIS and the other Syrian rebels have different strategic priorities. Rather than seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, ISIS’s first priority is establishing an Islamic state in liberated areas. As Bruce Hoffman put it in the New York Times, “anything above that is gravy.”

That approach is quite different even from other al-Qaeda-linked groups operating in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusrah, which includes a larger percentage of Syrians than ISIS, aims to eliminate Assad first and then focus on building a transnational Islamic state. Likewise, Ahrar al-Sham has traditionally portrayed itself as a Salafi organization focused only an Islamic state in Syria, which has facilitated strong ties to the Gulf states such as Qatar and Kuwait. But, the group’s leadership, most notably Abu Khalid al-Suri, has longstanding ties to al-Qaeda leaders and recently announced that he considers himself following their path.

Regardless of the precise extent of Assad’s relationship with ISIS, 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. That does not vindicate or validate Assad, who is a murderous criminal that deserves to be overthrown, but it must not be ignored lest other organizations and countries make similar mistakes.

That this strategy has been counterproductive raises several fascinating, interlinked, and critical questions, most notably, why did the rebels do that? And, can Syrian opposition groups trust Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham going forward in light of the betrayal of ISIS?

The simplest answer to the first question is that the Syrian rebels forgot their Clausewitz. In a desperate effort to increase their battlefield effectiveness in 2011 and 2012, the rebels overlooked what war is all about—politics.  Namely, the rebels overlooked the political extremism of jihadis and, in particular, fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq entering the fray and the impact this would have on prospects for western support and the cohesion of the Syrian regime. When the United States designated Jabhat al-Nusrah as a terrorist organization in December, 2012, the SNC denounced the decision, offering a “full rejection of any accusation of extremism and terrorism to any of the forces that are fighting the Syrian regime.”

The surprising aspect of rebel infighting in Syria is not that ISIS has infuriated the other insurgent factions; it is that Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham have managed to avoid the same fate. As noted by various jihadi scholars, jihadi factions from Afghanistan, Algeria, and Iraq have squandered battlefield success by alienating themselves from more reasonable tribal and militant actors. Jabhat al-Nusrah’s seemingly successful collaboration with secular and state-backed Islamists is the exception, not the rule. At least so far. So, what does that mean for rebel collaboration with Jabhat al-Nusrah going forward?

The ongoing ISIS confrontation is only the beginning for non-jihadi Syrian revolutionaries. Whereas Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham look like allies today, over the long-run, jihadi organizations do not build sustained cross-ideological alliances. They will ultimately turn on other elements of the Syrian rebellion—and the leaders of these jihadi groups may even turn on the Syrians in their own organizations, who are reportedly less radicalized. When the day comes that Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham either turn on other elements of the Syrian resistance or operationalize their more radical ideas, the Syrian rebels and their supporters in the Gulf and beyond should look in the mirror, not to Damascus, where Assad will continue laughing comfortably from his palace.

Disgruntled Conclusions

Foreign support for jihadi organizations operating in Syria is unacceptable from an American policy perspective. Saudi and Qatari frustration with American policy toward Syria and Iran is understandable, but empowering jihadi elements—even Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham—is shortsighted and counterproductive. It has been so counterproductive, in fact, that it is now plausible for the foreign minister of a NATO ally to accuse the Assad regime of sponsoring the jihadi factions because their interests align so well. The reports that rebels, including Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham, have turned on ISIS do not invalidate this point. Both groups are now linked closely with al-Qaeda (Ahrar al-Sham will likely join Jabhat al-Nusrah as a U.S.-designated terrorist organization), the presence of both helps Assad more than it hurts, and both have visions of a post-Assad Syria very different than other rebel factions.

It is hard to overstate how much the instrumentalization of al-Qaeda in Syria—by both the regime and its opponents—undermines the broader fight against that group. Despite 9/11, the horrific abuses of Zarqawi in Iraq, the ugly 2003 jihadi uprising in Saudi Arabia, and the challenge of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Saudi security, the temptation of Sunni extremist proxies in Syria has been too much for America’s Gulf allies to resist. Of all the victories against al-Qaeda in years since 9/11, seemingly one of the most important was general agreement—even among Gulf Salafi movements—that jihadis are too volatile to be used as proxies. That agreement led to intelligence sharing, communications collaboration to stifle jihadi recruitment, and operational assistance of various kinds. The uninhibited inflow of foreign fighters to Syria, including thousands from Europe that transited Turkey, shows that some of that operational cooperation has already ended. And maybe the consensus that undergirded it never really existed. Many of those fighters will go home to their previous lives, but some will fight again in Europe or the Middle East. When they do, the West should not first blame Bashar al-Assad (who remains guilty of many other crimes). Instead, the West will look to the Syrian opposition and their supporters, who in the service of a just cause found the temptation of jihadi shock troops too much to resist.


Brian Fishman is a War on the Rocks Contributor and a Fellow at the New America Foundation.


Photo credit: thierry ehrmann