One has to hand it to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Since the outbreak of what was initially a popular revolt against his regime in early 2011, the Syrian head of state has consistently applied the terrorist label to the protesters. Once the mostly peaceful demonstrations morphed into a full blown civil war, he also slapped on the al-Qaeda tag.
One reason Assad has felt comfortable accusing the rebels of terrorism is the fact that he played a role in establishing radical groups in the country himself, not least with the suspicious release of hundreds of jihadists from prison in mid-2011. This is to say nothing of his regime’s ruthlessness in repressing dissent, which adds a further ingredient for radicalisation. That way, he could paint all opposition to his regime with the same terrorist brush in the hope of setting off alarm bells throughout Western capitals and, eventually, turning the tide of the propaganda war in his favour.
Using the threat of terrorism as an excuse to crack down on dissent has long been a trademark of repressive regimes in the Middle East: either authoritarian stability or an Islamist deluge, goes the refrain. The Assad regime has been no different. If the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq set the stage by giving al-Qaeda a new lease on life, Assad's sworn enemies turned into his best allies in fulfilling his warnings about Syria's future.
It has long been an open secret that the Arab Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have supplied billions of dollars-worth of weapons to hard-line jihadists, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the recipient of generous funds from wealthy Gulf individuals with the tacit nod of approval from those regimes. NATO member Turkey, for its part, provided a safe haven for disparate anti-Assad groups as well as logistical support, including maintaining an open “jihadist highway” along its more than 800-km long border with Syria.
While all this happened with the backing, at least implicitly, of the Obama administration, the repercussions have been felt far beyond Syria’s borders. Currently, the ISIS-spawned Islamic State (IS) controls roughly a third of the territory of both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, IS continues bolstering its position vis-à-vis other anti-government opposition groups in no small measure owing to the latest injection of advanced US-manufactured weaponry captured in Iraq. Confident in its superior firepower, IS has opened two active fronts with the Kurdish People’s Defence Units, or YPG, in the strategic Ayn al-Arab region and in Hasakah governorate.
In Iraq, where al-Qaeda-type groups gained a foothold in the unrest that followed the 2003 US invasion, IS successfully exploited a massive wave of discontent with the central government in Baghdad among the country’s Sunni community, and roared back with a vengeance. This belied claims that the US troop surge had largely defeated al-Qaeda in the country by 2009, while further exposing the bankruptcy of the political system Iraqis inherited from the occupation. IS took Fallujah at the start of the year. In June, Iraq’s second city of Mosul fell with disheartening ease to the group, whose momentum seems to have been at least temporarily reversed by Iraqi and Kurdish forces with the backing of US air strikes.
The West’s readiness to intervene on the side of the embattled Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has prompted some observers to suggest that Aleppo may be next on IS’s agenda – as the US Air Force will certainly not come to Assad’s rescue. If this assumption is correct, it may appear that the interests of the Syrian regime and those of IS coincide in crushing what is left of an already besieged moderate Syrian opposition to Assad.
That may be so, but even if this alliance of convenience were to materialize on the ground, all signs indicate that it would meet a fast and bitter end. In the northeast, clashes between IS and regime forces have been on the uptick in the past weeks, with IS executing captured Syrian soldiers in a macabre prelude to what is surely still to come. The Syrian air force has been pummelling the northern city of Raqqa, a main IS stronghold and the only provincial capital to have slipped out of Assad’s grip since 2011.
Riding on the wave of universal condemnation of IS, including a unanimously approved UN Security Council resolution, the Syrian government feels it has carte blanche in its fight against terrorism. However, now that the regime’s propaganda has come full circle, it may prove difficult to defeat such a formidable enemy. IS is well trained and equipped, battle hardened, ideologically committed and, when challenged, mercilessly brutal in quelling dissent, most recently by executing seven hundred tribal leaders in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour. By one account, it now boasts a 50,000 strong army in Syria alone. More importantly, IS controls territory larger than the size of Great Britain, along with oil revenues that may amount up to $100 million per month. Thus, IS is not only a state in name, it is fast starting to think and behave like one as well, offering a modicum of good governance to the population living in its territories. In short, it is worse than al-Qaeda.
Ironically, only a few months ago President Assad predicted an end to the active phase of the war by the close of 2014. His allies, Russia and Iran, followed suit with upbeat statements to the effect that no one can change the equation in Syria anymore and that "we have won" in Syria. The regime, they claimed, was here to stay. The last weeks have proven this to be but a fantasy. Far from being over, the Syrian civil war is plumbing new depths of horror.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration eagerly funded a jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan: this eventually led to the Taliban sweeping to power in the country, as well as the creation of al-Qaeda. The ultimate blowback came on September 11, 2001. The current blowback from IS is the end result of a combination of policies that, official claims notwithstanding, created fertile ground for the rise of the Islamic State. The US 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq galvanised al-Qaeda – a spent force by the end of 2002 – by opening a new theatre of operation in which it could thrive. In the context of the Syrian civil war, Assad contributed the initial human capital, along with unspeakable brutality in suppressing any opposition to his rule, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey added logistics, weapons and funds.
As the Syrian regime battles IS, the others – in the words of veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn – “may now be frightened by the Frankenstein, but there is little they can do to restrain a monster that is, at least partly, their own creation.” Saudi Arabia frets over the possible consequences of a confrontation between its army and IS, as “some troops may switch to the latter's side” given the “great level of sympathy [it enjoys] among the kingdom’s population.” The blowback against Turkey has been well documented, from the worst terrorist attack on Turkish soil, in Reyhanli in mid-2013, to the storming of Turkey’s Consulate in Mosul in June 2014, and the ensuing kidnapping of the Turkish consul along with several other officials.
No country seems immune. Recent clashes between the Lebanese army and IS militants in Arsal likely mark the first round of a longer war. King Abdullah II worries about possible encroachments by IS on Jordan’s eastern border with Iraq, along which the country’s armed forces have recently doubled their presence. During IS’s June sweep through Anbar province in western Iraq, the group seized the city of Rutba, less than 150 km from the Jordanian border. And Western intelligence experts warn of possible attacks further afield, given estimates of roughly 12,000 foreign fighters who have travelled to Syria to join groups such as IS since the beginning of the conflict, including thousands of Europeans who may one day bring the fight home.
In a pre-run of the 2016 US election campaign, op-eds and open letters to President Obama are beginning to appear demanding more of the same policies that brought us here in the first place. The bottom line for those taking this stance is clear: it is all about Obama’s legacy and US leadership in the world. The grim reality, however, is that there are no quick fixes to a mess that has been years in the making. Instead, for the short term, the Syrian regime – the biggest killer of civilians in Syria, lest we forget – will bank on these latest developments as its enemies begin, however begrudgingly, to ease pressure on the state for fear of IS, and even share intelligence with Damascus. Stuck between Assad’s hammer and IS’s bloody anvil, the only certainty is that for the people of Syria, and the region, an even darker phase of an already deadly war has started, with no end in sight.
Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist and political analyst. In 2013, he was the political and media analyst at the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.