This September 11, as Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad celebrated his 49th birthday, you can imagine that he felt confident the direction of the conflict and the future of his rule were heading in the right direction.
For over three years as Syria’s cities were both emptied and pulverised, Assad preached a single and unerring message – that the crisis was the fault of a wider conspiracy against the Syrian state and that it was being fuelled by foreign terrorists. The rise and rise of ISIL has fitted into this narrative perfectly with their acts of savage barbarism dominating the global headlines and their blitzkrieg into Iraq forcing the hand of US re-intervention in the region.
Today all eyes are on the small town of Kobane, a place many wouldn’t have suspected to be touched by history but which was described by the Economist this week as “the Kurdish Stalingrad”. The focus on the town and the role of Kurdish forces, ISIL and US air strikes have taken complete attention away from Assad’s new offensive threatening to encircle rebels in Aleppo and a devastating new aerial campaign. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in less than a fortnight, Syrian warplanes have dropped at least 401 barrel bombs on rebel areas in eight provinces across the country.
Kobane is a gift to Assad, allowing the regime in Damascus to push militarily while simultaneously driving a diplomatic charm offensive positioning itself as the rational and moderate player in the increasingly bloody Middle East power equation. Bouthaina Shaaban, nominally an Assad “adviser” told veteran reporter Robert Fisk last week that Syria is suffering from a US attack against the state itself rather than an attempt at regime change. Shaaban suggested that “the conspiracy theory is no longer a ‘theory’ it is a reality we must confront together”. But is the regime the victim of a conspiracy theory or the proponent of one?
Setting a trap
The conspiracy theory has long been a staple of the region and Kobane and the rise of ISIL has allowed Assad to set a trap into which more and more people are falling. The trap is thinking that the regime has the answers to the challenges of extremism without examining in closer detail their relationship to and with it. Much like talking to a pyromaniac about the problem of fires, the more we hear about ISIL, the more reasonable it would seem to be engaging with the regime.
This is partly due to the global nature of many of ISIL’s fighters. A UN Security Council report revealed on Friday that some 15,000 foreign jihadis have travelled to Syria and Iraq from more than 80 countries to fight alongside ISIL and other groups. This has led to huge amounts of navel-gazing, especially in the West, as to issues of radicalisation and levels of domestic threat.
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However, speaking last month at Chatham House, former UN/Arab League Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi reminded the audience that ISIL was born in Iraq. This birth was largely a cause of the state collapse that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of the country and subsequent disbanding of the Iraqi armed forces including the border guard some 35,000 strong.
Into these ungoverned spaces flowed foreign fighters seeking to join a Sunni insurgency allowed to flourish by the sectarian dynamics of the post-2003 Iraqi body-politic. Syria’s border with Iraq became known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” for foreign fighters entering the country. Assad, wary of US success in Iraq leading to thoughts of unseating him, was happy to allow fighters to travel east.
While there is no clear evidence of the Assad regime having direct command and control of groups operating on the ISIL-spectrum there is certainly anecdotal evidence that Damascus was happy to see the extremist contagion as splitting opposition against him and appealing to the West’s primary concern of global terrorism.
Assad withdrew his security forces from large swaths of the country as the scale of the rebellion became clear. Defecting Syrian intelligence officers have reported that Assad released known “Islamist militants” from prison to subvert the peaceful protests. Visitors to Aleppo reported earlier this year that while the Jabhat al-Nusra HQ was left untouched, Assad forces pounded the FSA facilities.
It is hard to know whether Assad, who had a long-standing extremist “challenge” from Jund al-Sham before the 2010 crisis, could ever have predicted how ISIL would grow in size and lethality. However, faced with a choice of enemies, ISIL at present serves the dual purpose for Damascus of splitting and hurting the opposition while keeping the attention of those who could pursue regime change on a different threat level.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s “leaked memo” criticised Obama’s plan for not having a clear policy towards Assad and Syria. Kobane is hiding the cracks in wider US policy, and its biggest impact is giving Assad a free hand to effectively consolidate its own conspiracy theory.
James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.