[Marxism] Fwd: The Islamic State’s Strategy: Lasting and Expanding-Carnegie Middle East Center - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jul 4 08:29:55 MDT 2015

Pragmatic Relationship With the Syrian Regime

The Islamic State and the Syrian regime mutually benefit from one 
another, and consequently the relationship between the two has been 
largely pragmatic. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has 
been an economic client for the Islamic State as well as an indirect 
facilitator of its military activities, while the group helps to 
validate Assad’s narrative that he is fighting Islamist extremists, an 
approach he has been using since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 
2011 to discredit the Syrian opposition. The Islamic State is also 
useful for Assad because it serves as a tool to counter the regime’s 
enemies, including both the Free Syrian Army (FSA)—a collection of 
moderate rebel fighters—and groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda 
affiliate in Syria that was created to fight the regime.

The Islamic State first arose in Syria in areas that the regime had lost 
to the opposition but which were far from the front lines. Opposition 
groups did not have a big military presence in those areas—and in most 
cases were instead focused on fighting the regime elsewhere—making them 
ideal for the Islamic State. The regime did not prioritize retaking 
these areas because Assad apparently calculated that allowing the 
Islamic State to operate in them and fight against the Syrian opposition 
and Jabhat al-Nusra would weaken his opponents, and that once the 
opposition was eradicated, the regime would be able to control the 
Islamic State.2 In doing so, Assad counted on presenting himself to the 
West as a counterterrorism partner. The Islamic State in turn did not 
prioritize fighting the regime, believing that it could easily overwhelm 
it in the future, and concentrated instead on building its 

The strategy used by the Islamic State is diverse and is based on 
pragmatism as well as the merger of military, media, and socioeconomic 

The absence of front lines with the Islamic State gave the regime an 
excuse not to fight it and gave the militant group the ability to hold 
areas and recruit local and foreign fighters. The lack of fighting also 
encouraged many Syrians to move to areas controlled by the Islamic State 
in the pursuit of security rather than ideology. This came at a time 
when the Syrian opposition was badly fragmented due to both political 
disagreements and the lack of a viable military strategy.
The Islamic State took hold of resource-rich areas, beginning in 
mid-2014 with the northern governorate of Raqqa, and eventually became 
financially self-sufficient in Syria by selling oil, wheat, and water; 
demanding ransom for kidnapped foreigners; and imposing taxes on local 

The Syrian regime has been a key economic partner for the group, which 
has been selling oil from its wells in Syria at discounted prices to the 
regime. Although the Islamic State has also sold oil to both the FSA and 
Jabhat al-Nusra, which in turn facilitated and benefited from the sale 
of oil on the black market in Turkey, this activity has been greatly 
reduced due to Turkey’s increased monitoring of activities on its border 
with Syria. The regime, however, remains a key client.5
Syrian government forces began attacking areas controlled by the Islamic 
State in June 2014, after the group’s expansion in Iraq threatened to 
destabilize Shia areas close to Assad’s ally, Iran. But most of the 
Assad regime’s military engagement has been directed at the Free Syrian 
Army. In November 2014, a report by Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Center 
revealed that until that point, only 6 percent of the regime’s attacks 
that year had been directed at Islamic State targets.6
The pragmatic relationship between the Islamic State and the Syrian 
regime continued despite the latter’s bombing of Raqqa in late 2014. 
They still appear to coordinate on the provision of services like 
electricity, with the militant group controlling a number of dams on the 
Iraq-Syria border and the regime continuing to pay most of the salaries 
of state employees residing in Islamic State–controlled areas.7

The regime’s pragmatism can also be seen in its passivity toward the 
group’s movements in areas with significant opposition presence. The 
regime did not stand in the way when Islamic State fighters approached 
the Qalamoun Mountains on the Syrian-Lebanese border to fight the Free 
Syrian Army in the area in 2014. It also did not interfere in early 2015 
when the Islamic State took over the Yarmouk refugee camp near 
Damascus—and fought antiregime groups during the attack.8 A similar 
scenario occurred when the Islamic State attacked the ancient desert 
city of Palmyra in May 2015, although unlike in Yarmouk, there was not a 
significant opposition presence in Palmyra. In mid-2015, direct 
confrontations with the regime remained limited to areas like Rif Hama, 
the Haql al-Shaer oilfield, the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, and, 
since May 2015, Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

At the same time, the Islamic State has avoided attacks on certain 
regime areas because they lie between its territories and those 
controlled by its rival Jabhat al-Nusra, thereby forming a buffer zone 
between the two groups. The Islamic State has tried to avoid having 
front lines with Jabhat al-Nusra because they both regard fighting one 
another as a distraction from their main goals (building the caliphate 
for the former and fighting the regime for the latter). This was evident 
in east Hama as well as at the regime-controlled Abu al-Duhur military 
airfield on the Idlib-Aleppo border in northwestern Syria. Neither group 
has attempted to storm the airfield since Jabhat al-Nusra’s failed 
attempt in January 2015, when its advance resulted in a high number of 
casualties at the hands of regime forces, leading the group to halt its 
operation in the village of Tal Salmo on the outskirts of the area.9

However, the takeover of Idlib in April 2015 by the rival Jaysh al-Fateh 
rebel coalition, of which Jabhat al-Nusra is a major member, and the 
expansion of its attacks northward toward Aleppo, upstaged the Islamic 
State. Consequently, beginning in May 2015, the Islamic State increased 
its own attacks on regime areas in Aleppo and engaged in some military 
confrontations with Jaysh al-Fateh.

But this change in the dynamic between the Islamic State and the regime 
does not signal that the pragmatism between them is beginning to 
unravel. The regime has still not been putting up a serious fight 
against the Islamic State because ultimately, if the group eliminates 
other Islamist factions and the only remaining major players in Syria 
are the Assad regime and the Islamic State, the former will be able to 
appeal to the international community for support. The Islamic State, 
for its part, seems to base its calculations on being able to overwhelm 
the regime eventually.10

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