The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad decided to go easy on ISIS so that the extremist group would kill off secular rebels of the the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), Maria Abi-Habib of The Wall Street Journal reports.
And now that ISIS has matured into a regional force that beheaded an American journalist and threatens global interests, Assad is offering to cooperate with the West to fight the extremist group in Syria.
“It’s a strategy to eliminate the FSA and have the two main players face each other in Syria: Assad and the Islamic State,” Izzat Shahbandar, an Assad ally and former Iraqi lawmaker who was Baghdad’s liaison to Damascus, told WSJ. “And now [Damascus] is asking the world to help, and the world can’t say no.”
Shahbandar added that the regime would sometimes provide safe passage for ISIS fighters so that they could attack the FSA and steal weapons. The regime also released violent jihadists from prison in May 2011, and it even bought millions of dollars worth of crude oil from the group.
Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi, who spent several decades in the Syrian Foreign Ministry, echoed Shahbandar’s comments when describing Assad’s plan similarly in the Atlantic Council.
“The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emerged as one of those facts created to ensure Assad’s survival as he and his Iranian backers seek to frame this conflict as a regional sectarian issue, with a classical choice between military powers and Sunni extremists,” Barabandi wrote recently. “Now that ISIS has fully matured, the Assad regime and Iran offer themselves as partners to the United States.”
Assad is no stranger to using Sunni extremists to his advantage, and he even helped predecessors of ISIS when the U.S. invaded Iraq.
“Historically, Assad has also had a complex, at times supportive, relationship with Sunni jihadi elements — including those which eventually morphed into IS,” Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and expert on Shia militias, told Business Insider in an email.
“He was assisting in funelling a good number of these fighters into Iraq during the Iraq War and even caused [former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki to call out Damascus for its activities.”
Whether the West can say “No” is another matter. On Monday, Germany ruled out any cooperation with Assad, saying his regime had “committed unbelievable injustice in every form during the civil war that has been raging for 3 1/2 years.” The White House has also been adamant that it would not cooperate with a regime that has tortured and killed people on an industrial scale.
Barabandi, the Syrian diplomat, noted that if the West decides to work with Assad and his allies, Assad’s devilishly simple plan will have worked perfectly.
“U.S. coordination with Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, or the Assad government in the fight against ISIS will play directly into the Assad plan,” Barabandi said. “It will prove to Assad that his manipulation of time and terror has once again worked.”
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