The Wall Street Journal reports that the Assad government has dropped its “blind-eye” strategy and flipped to start attacking ISIS head-on. The Journal has assembled a very comprehensive explanation of how Bashar Al-Assad’s government in Damascus manipulated mutually opposing rebel factions to weaken coherent opposition to the regime and enable them to crush the US/Western-backed side of the three-way war. They describe this new review as being “pieced together from interviews with Syrian rebel commanders and opposition figures, Iraqi government officials and Western diplomats, as well as al Qaeda documents seized by the U.S. military in Iraq.”
Here’s a concise account by an Assad supporter in Iraq about the evolution of the strategy:
Earlier in the three-year-old Syrian uprising, Mr. Assad decided to mostly avoid fighting the Islamic State to enable it to cannibalize the more secular rebel group supported by the West, the Free Syrian Army, said Izzat Shahbandar, an Assad ally and former Iraqi lawmaker who was Baghdad’s liaison to Damascus. The goal, he said, was to force the world to choose between the regime and extremists.
“When the Syrian army is not fighting the Islamic State, this makes the group stronger,” said Mr. Shahbandar, a close aide to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said Mr. Assad described the strategy to him personally during a visit in May to Damascus. “And sometimes, the army gives them a safe path to allow the Islamic State to attack the FSA and seize their weapons.”
“It’s a strategy to eliminate the FSA and have the two main players face each other in Syria: Assad and the Islamic State,” said Mr. Shahbandar. “And now [Damascus] is asking the world to help, and the world can’t say no.”
Backed into a corner, we saw senior UK officials just today having to deny that Britain would switch to supporting the Syrian government again, in response to ISIS. So while the world may still “say no” to Assad, they’ve certainly be put into an awkward position.
Back to the Wall Street Journal account, we learn that the government in Western Syria has finally turned its attention toward the threat in the east:
In June, Syria launched airstrikes on the group’s headquarters in Raqqa in northern Syria, the first large-scale offensive against the militant group since it rose to power a year ago. This week, Syria flew more than three dozen sorties on Raqqa, its biggest assault on the group yet.
The Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, denied that Damascus supported the Islamic State early on and praised his government’s battlefield response to the group, pointing to dozens of recent strikes on the group’s headquarters.
“Our priorities changed as these groups emerged,” Mr. Ali said in an interview at his office. “Last month it was protecting Damascus, for example. Today it is Raqqa.”
Speaking of the Islamic State aggression that has decimated the more secular FSA, he said: “When these groups clashed, the Syrian government benefited. When you have so many enemies and they clash with each other, you must take advantage of it. You step back, see who is left and finish them off.”
Mr. Shahbandar said the Islamic State’s recent success forced the Syrian government and its Iranian allies to ramp up their military assaults, hoping the West will throw its weight behind Damascus and Tehran to defeat the extremists.
The article also cites documentation indicating that the authorities in Damascus had a specific catch-and-release policy for international militant fighters landing at the airport there to join the chaotic civil war that was starting to spill across the borders. The policy was that if the fighters intended to wage war on the Syrian government they were not released, but if they intended to attack the U.S. and U.S. interests in Iraq (or competing rebels in eastern Syria), they were let go. This was cloaked as “amnesty” and “goodwill” gestures, but was far more cynical Iraq’s official protests of this strategy fell on deaf ears.
Many of the fighters are now in ISIS, which is significantly stronger than it was a year or two ago — theoretically controlling 12,000 square miles in two countries and having 10,000-20,000 fighters — but is also now facing a Syrian military that is much more experienced in waging counterinsurgency and is no longer significantly distracted by US-armed “moderate” rebels in western Syria and the capital region.
And by the time Assad’s forces arrive in some of the less enthusiastic ISIS-captured communities in eastern Syria, residents may be welcoming them as liberators, even if the U.S. and its allies are not.