[Marxism] ISIS gained momentum from Assad's decision to go easy on it

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 26 17:18:53 MDT 2014

Wall Street Journal, August 22 2014

Islamic State, or ISIS, Gained Momentum Early On From Calculated 
Decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Go Easy on It


The Islamic State, which metastasized from a group of militants seeking 
to overthrow the Syrian government into a marauding army gobbling up 
chunks of the Middle East, gained momentum early on from a calculated 
decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go easy on it, according 
to people close to the regime.

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 

The Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, has emerged 
recently as a major threat to the entire region and beyond. Its seizure 
of territory in neighboring Iraq triggered American airstrikes, and its 
execution this week of kidnapped American journalist James Foley 
prompted President Barack Obama to vow to continue the U.S. air war 
against the group in Iraq and to relentlessly pursue the killers. 
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said 
the group can't be defeated without choking off its operations in Syria.

This account of how the Islamic State benefited from the complex 
three-way civil war in Syria between the government, the largely 
secular, moderate rebels and the hard-core Islamist groups was 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.

The Assad regime now appears to be shifting away from its early 
reluctance to engage the group.

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. Such cooperation would put the U.S. and its 
regional allies such as Saudi Arabia in an uncomfortable position, after 
years of supporting the FSA and demanding that Mr. Assad step down.

There are some signs that the opposing sides might be willing to work 
together. In Iraq, the U.S. began arming Kurdish Peshmerga forces this 
month, while the Iranians sent advisers.

The Syrian government facilitated the predecessor to the Islamic State 
-- al Qaeda in Iraq -- when that group's primary target was U.S. troops 
then in the country.

In 2007, U.S. military forces raided an al Qaeda training camp in 
Sinjar, northern Iraq. They uncovered a trove of documents outlining 
Damascus's support to the extremists, according to the U.S. Military 
Academy at West Point, which publicly released the records. The Sinjar 
records detailed the flow of extremists from across the Middle East to 
the Damascus airport.

Syrian intelligence agents detained the fighters as they landed in the 
capital, holding them at the Sadnaya military prison on the city's 
outskirts. If deemed a threat to the country, they would remain 
imprisoned, the records indicate. But if their intentions were solely to 
fight U.S. troops in Iraq, Syrian intelligence would facilitate their 
flow across the border, the records show. Making that journey were many 
Saudis and Libyans -- the same nationalities that today bolster the 
ranks of the Islamic State.

Mr. Maliki's former spokesman, Ali Aldabbagh, said in an interview that 
he attended heated meetings in Damascus during which Baghdad asked Mr. 
Assad to stop the flow of al Qaeda militants across the border. He said 
Syria brushed off the requests.

"The Assad regime played a key role in ISIL's rise," said U.S. State 
Department spokeswoman Marie Harf at a news conference earlier this 
month. "They allowed for a security situation where ISIL could grow in 
strength. The Syrian regime fostered the growth of terrorist networks. 
They facilitated the flow of al Qaeda foreign fighters in . . . Iraq."

The Assad regime denies providing any support to the groups.

By the time the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, the 
militant group was nearly decimated. It regrouped in northeast Syria as 
the revolution was becoming a civil war. It was led by a charismatic 
figure from Samarra, Iraq, who goes by the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In May 2011, after the first protests broke out in Syria, the Syrian 
government released from the Sadnaya military prison some of its most 
high-value detainees imprisoned for terrorism, the first in a series of 
general amnesties. At least nine went on to lead extremist groups in 
Syria, and four currently serve the Islamic State, statements from the 
extremist groups and interviews with other rebels show.

Mr. Ali, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, said Damascus had released 
only common criminals in the amnesties, who were then offered money by 
extremist groups to fight against the government.

"When Syria released these people, they hadn't committed terrorist 
crimes," he said. "They were just criminals. In 2011, there were calls 
for freedom and accusations that Damascus was imprisoning people, so we 
hosted several amnesties [to demonstrate] our goodwill."

Bassam Barabandi, a diplomat in Syria's foreign ministry at the time who 
has since defected, offered a different explanation. "The fear of a 
continued, peaceful revolution is why these Islamists were released," he 
said. "The reasoning behind the jihadists, for Assad and the regime, is 
that they are the alternative to the peaceful revolution. They are 
organized with the doctrine of jihad and the West is afraid of them."

The U.S. has been reluctant to supply arms to the moderate rebels for 
fear that the weaponry would wind up in the hands of extremists.

By the start of 2012, radical groups were entrenched in the Syrian 
uprising, with al Nusra Front, al Qaeda's Syrian arm, the biggest 
player. Last year, Nusra split over an ideological and leadership 
struggle. Most of the group's foreign fighters formed what was then 
known as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, since renamed 
Islamic State.

The split between Nusra and the Islamic State created a fissure among al 
Qaeda supporters. The Islamic State presented itself as truer to al 
Qaeda's past, with its more radical social codes, and was more focused 
than its predecessor in creating a caliphate, or Islamic empire.

The Islamic State militants despised the FSA and its largely secular 
rebels, denouncing them as nonbelievers. By last summer, the Islamic 
State began grabbing territory the FSA had captured from the regime. In 
September, the Islamic State defeated the FSA's Northern Storm Brigade 
in Azaz, a border outpost between Aleppo province and Turkey. The 
Islamic State quickly imposed its hard-line version of Islam, forbidding 
smoking, enforcing the segregation of the sexes and conservative dress.

The Islamic State continued to take territory and impose its social 
codes on more of Syria, growing more ruthless over time. In January, 
disparate rebel factions united to turn their guns on Islamic State 
fighters, while angry civilians simultaneously rose up against the 
group. The FSA drove the Islamic State from its strongholds across Syria.

Shifting alliances between various rebel groups made the situation murky.

In the northern city of Raqqa, Islamic State fighters were ensconced in 
three municipal buildings by mid-January, surrounded by rebels from the 
FSA and Islamic Front, a coalition of religious rebel groups. The 
Islamist militia Ahrar al-Sham, fighting alongside the FSA, posed the 
biggest threat, and Islamic State fighters appeared ready to surrender 
to that group.

"They got on the loudspeakers and said, 'We are your Muslim brothers. 
Don't kill us. Let us withdraw peacefully with our weapons,'" said 
Mohammed Abu Seif, an FSA rebel in Raqqa who was present at the standoff.

FSA fighters said their leaders wanted to continue the attack. They were 
prepared to kill the Islamic State militants, said Mr. Abu Seif and 
several other rebels involved in the fighting.

But Ahrar al-Sham wavered, they said, taking pity on their Muslim 
brethren. FSA fighters pressed on, hoping to wipe out the Islamic State 
and restore the secular roots of their revolution, according to Mr. Abu 
Seif and the other rebels.

But by the fourth day, Ahrar al-Sham started to withdraw from Raqqa. 
Rebels say a previously unreported deal was cut for Ahrar al-Sham and 
the Islamic State to swap territory. The Islamic State agreed to 
withdraw from Aleppo and Azaz, a border crossing with Turkey. In 
exchange, Ahrar al Sham would withdraw from Raqqa and Tal Abyad, another 
border town.

The FSA found themselves surrounded in the Raqqa suburbs by thousands of 
Islamic State fighters who were retreating from FSA advances elsewhere. 
On the eighth day, the FSA and its affiliates retreated, leaving Raqqa 
to the Islamic State.

By the spring, the Islamic State had used what amounted to a sanctuary 
in Raqqa to rejuvenate its ranks. With Raqqa as its base and 
headquarters, the militants went back on the offensive, storming across 
Syria, while its branch in Iraq did the same just across the border.

By June, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate and renamed ISIS the 
Islamic State, declaring nearly 12,000 square miles of contiguous 
territory across western Iraq and in Syria's north and east -- an area 
the size of Belgium -- a newly formed Islamic caliphate. The group now 
threatens the borders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, where it 
briefly occupied a Lebanese border town this month.

Still, at times its actions appeared to help the Syrian government in 
its fight against the FSA. Aleppo, Syria's largest city, remained one of 
the few major strongholds of FSA resistance. Last month, the Islamic 
State quietly withdrew from the city's northeastern suburbs, clearing 
the way for Syrian government forces to stream in. Not a shot was fired. 
The gains enabled government forces to flank FSA rebels from three sides 
in Aleppo.

As FSA fighters struggle to hold off the regime, they also are fighting 
Islamic State militants in the countryside just north of Aleppo. Only 4 
miles remain to fully encircle and besiege Aleppo. If FSA rebels lose 
the battle, it could spell the end of their revolution, rebels say.

Today, at a time when the FSA's ranks are thinning, new recruits from 
the Middle East and beyond are flocking to the Islamic State, crossing 
the Turkish border to settle themselves and sometimes their families in 
Raqqa. The group's fighters and core members are largely Syrians and 
Iraqis, but recruits are arriving from as far away as Europe and the 
U.S., say American intelligence officials. The U.K. chief of police in 
charge of counterterrorism estimated in June that 500 Britons alone have 
joined the group, although a member of British Parliament has said the 
number could be as high as 1,500.

At a recent U.S. intelligence briefing, American officials estimated the 
Islamic State's size to be about 10,000 before it took over Mosul, 
Iraq's second largest city, in June. European diplomats say the number 
may be as high as 20,000.

In June, after the Islamic State took over most of western Iraq and 
eastern Syria, controlling much of the border between the two countries, 
the Syrian regime began shifting its approach, striking Raqqa from the 
air. Since then, the Islamic State's appetite to attack the regime has 
grown, and it has assaulted government forces across Syria.

Iraqi officials say the strike on Raqqa may have been prompted by 
Baghdad's anger toward Damascus for allowing the Islamic State to rise 
to prominence in Syria, emboldening its Iraq branch.

Syrian civilians living in Raqqa and rebels said that unless the U.S. is 
willing to expand its military strikes against the Islamic State to 
include Syria, the group will continue to grow.

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