Monday, June 8, 2015

ISIS and the Syrian régime are not in cahoots

When it comes to ISIS (IS, ISIL, The Islamic State), people seem to espouse the following rule: because they're evil, I can just make stuff up about them.  This is a bad idea.  ISIS has to be fought in the real world, not fantasyland.  Mythmaking about ISIS links to the Syrian régime is particularly dangerous: it substitutes a fake battlefield for the  real one.  Whether you look at the big picture or at the battlefield specifics, there is no basis for asserting that the régime and IS are allies, or have a common strategy, much less that they "are one".  There is some basis for supposing that the régime has ever aided IS in specific battles - but very little.  And there is no basis for supposing that, if that's the case, it reveals any kinship or indeed any significant relationship between ISIS and the régime.

The Big Picture

First, consider the thumpingly obvious big picture that ISIS-régime mythmakers ignore or dismiss.  The régime has killed hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims.  ISIS portrays itself as the defender of Sunni Muslims against among others Assad, quite successfully, because it does of course defend them.  In areas controlled by ISIS, not one Sunni Muslim is ever arrested, tortured and killed by the régime.  Indeed ISIS makes a show of executing régime supporters: 

Civilians trapped in Palmyra were rounded up by ISIS and forced to watch as the jihadist group executed a group of twenty men accused of fighting on behalf of Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad.  ("Monitor: ISIS forces civilians to watch mass execution in Palmyra ")
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported Sunday that more than 800 Syrian regime soldiers were executed or captured by the self-proclaimed Islamic state of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) after the group captured the eastern countryside of Palmyra in Homs Province.  ("SOHR: ISIS executes hundreds of Syrian regime forces")
As the report indicates, the régime doesn't cover up the atrocities of its alleged pal.  It feasts on them:

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported Sunday that more than 800 Syrian regime soldiers were executed or captured by the self-proclaimed Islamic state of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) after the group captured the eastern countryside of Palmyra in Homs Province.  [...]
Syrian state TV SANA said on Sunday that 400 people were killed by ISIS since Palmyra was captured.

 “The terrorists have killed more than 400 people including women and children, and mutilated their bodies, under the pretext that they cooperated with the government and did not follow orders,” SANA said, citing residents inside Palmyra.

And for an entity supposedly immune from régime air strikes, ISIS is oddly intolerant those who facilitate régime air strikes:

The ISIS has publicly executed a Syrian it accused of planting tracking devices for deadly regime air strikes, SITE Intelligence reported on Saturday.  ("ISIS executes Syrian for aiding regime air strikes" [AFP story])
Oh, about that immunity from air strikes, to which we will return later,  the report adds:

In October and November, the Syrian regime sharply intensified its air strikes on areas held by ISIS or other rebel groups.
These strikes include that supposedly most immune of ISIS' holdings, its 'capital', Raqqa:

Some of the deadliest hit the ISIS “capital” of Raqa on November 25, killing at least 95 people.
But it's not just a matter of what the régime does to ISIS.  It's also a matter of what ISIS does, not only to régime troops and bases, but also to the regime's core support.  Sometimes, ISIS kills people specifically because they are Alawites, even when these Alawites have not been fighting in the régime army:

In a video released by the Raqqa Media Center, the two men were shown bound and blindfolded, kneeling in the central Naim Square as a large crowd gathered.

Two masked men armed with handguns then approach them from behind, shooting each twice – once in the upper back and once in the back of the head.

The crowd then charges forward, cheering while gunmen fire automatic weapons in the air.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group confirmed the account, also adding that a woman who questioned the executions was told the men were “Nusayri [Alawite] apostates who have raped our women.”   ("Islamist rebels execute Alawite men in Raqqa")
Note here the executions seem to be popular.

This is no anomaly.  Here is Joshua Landis on the famed and much-ridiculed ISIS commander Abu Wahid:

Abu Wahib is the ISIS officer who executed the Alawite truck drivers several months ago for not knowing how to pray properly.   ("The Battle between ISIS and Syria's Rebel Militias"
Joshua Landis is a respected source sometimes thought to have sympathies with the régime.  In the context of this  piece, it's worth noting that many sometimes unverified but similar reports  allege ISIS massacres of Alawites.  These are regularly disseminated by the régime.  (In the interests of brevity they won't be displayed here.)  So the régime assiduously cultivates expectations that the Alawites will be massacred by ISIS, which has been merciless to its enemies.  This alone discredits the suggestion that ISIS and the régime are playing some sly backstage game together.

Here then are facts.  ISIS executes captured régime soldiers, individuals accused of helping the régime, and civilians whose only crime seems to be adherence to Assad's Alawite sect.  All Alawites are, in the eyes of ISIS, apostates.  While there is debate about whether killing apostates is justifiable in Islam, no one denies that ISIS thinks so. Of all the parties to the Syrian war, ISIS is by far the most deeply committed to wiping out every last régime soldier and every Alawite civilian.  So the idea that the régime and ISIS share any long-term objectives is utterly absurd.  The question then is whether the might share any short or medium term objectives.

How exactly is that supposed to work?  Anything which increases ISIS' power necessarily increases its danger to the régime.  This can't be compared with 'alliance of convenience' between the Allies and Stalin in World War II.  Stalin hadn't killed numerous Allied troops and civilians.  The Allies hadn't killed numerous Soviet troops and civilians.  They weren't fighting one another.  When they finally met on the battlefield, they shook hands. There was nothing covert about the cooperation; on the contrary all parties made much of it to their subjects.  Rhetoric about destroying communism or capitalism had to do with a remote future.  In Syria the rhetoric is about exterminating people, not systems, and it's supplemented by graphic examples from the present.  It makes no sense at all to suppose that ISIS and the régime would in any way cooperate unless the helper was quite sure that this would not increase the strength of the helped, but only on the contrary weaken them.

Can this be said of the régime aiding ISIS against the rebels?  Hardly.  Though the rebels have at times defeated ISIS and regained territory, ISIS has nonetheless gone from strength to strength in Syria.  No one holds that the rebel victories have done ISIS much  harm.  And while ISIS may do great harm to the rebels, the US can be relied on to repair the rebels in their anti-ISIS role.

That's evident in its prompt & generous resupply of TOW anti-tank missiles to anti-ISIS rebel groups after recent ISIS advances. So the regime cannot expect ISIS to do the rebels harm either.  This means that helping ISIS against the rebels isn't going to get the régime any even medium-term advantage and little if any short-term advantage.  (It would be one thing if the regime still seemed poised to overrun rebel positions in Aleppo; but that ship has sailed.) Indeed the best hope for the régime lies in the US plan of converting the rebels into a purely anti-ISIS force.  It would be insane for the régime to respond to this very real prospect by putting itself next to ISIS in the firing line.

It's not just that the régime can't expect ISIS to do lasting harm to the rebels.  It's also that the régime can't see those rebels ISIS attacks as a great danger.   The US is virtually explicit that it will not sponsor campaigns against Assad.  (Some US TOWs do end up being used against the régime, but that's hardly an incentive for the régime to back ISIS.)  The only rebel group that has succeeded in doing great harm to Assad recently is Jabhat al Nusra, which the US would like to destroy.  Though ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra are serious enemies, they have not mounted major offensives against one another in areas where they have both had their greatest victories:  there is no large-scale battle between ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra in Palmyra, Deir Ezzor or Idlib.  So the régime has no reason to suppose that the danger of strengthening ISIS is outweighed by that of strengthening the rebels.  In the South the rebels pose more of a threat, but there ISIS can do little against them and the régime shows no sign of aiding them.

More generally, for some time ISIS has grown stronger and more threatening, particularly in Syria where, apart from the Kurdish areas, the US bombs them only episodically. ISIS moves ever closer to Damascus.  This means that any short or medium term benefits that the régime might expect from collusion with ISIS now become much shorter.  You might offer an enemy some advantage now in exchange for some longer-term benefit to yourself, but not when the enemy is at your gates.

The Details

Given these general considerations, how do the particular facts on the ground stack up against all the reasons ISIS and the régime are anything but allies?  Here are a few specifics.

It is said that "Assad Helped Forge ISIS" by releasing its future leaders from jail.  True.  This is the kind of mistake that over-clever intelligence services have made ever since German intelligence helped Lenin cross over into Russia.  It has nothing whatever to do with whether Assad and ISIS are in an alliance, any more than US sponsorship of Bin Laden indicates that the US and Al Qaeda are in an alliance.

For quite a while now, ISIS-régime conspiracy theorists have asked why the régime hasn't bombed the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa.   This is supposed to be suspicious.  The suspicion presupposes that something crucial to ISIS success on the battlefield goes on in that HQ.  There's no evidence for this and no reason to think so.  ISIS isn't stupid; it's not gonna point a target on a strategically important operations center.  Moreover Raqqa is the sticks as far as the régime is concerned; it was only interested in maintaining air bases there.  It has indeed bombed in support of these bases.  It has also bombed sites in Raqqa which have some actual relation to the ability of IS to keep Raqqa functioning, such as the water plant.  This suggests that its anti-ISIS priorities in Raqqa are more sensible than hitting a highly public 'headquarters'.

It's also said that the régime "drops Barrel Bombs on civilians instead of ISIS".  From the very start of the uprising, the régime has  on hundreds of occasions attacked civilians rather than on military targets.  It has always preferred to terrorize the population in rebel areas in the belief that this will turn people against the rebels.  It's willful blindness to suppose that its practices have somehow changed since ISIS came on the scene.

It is said that ISIS and the régime "don't really fight".  Apparently people come to believe this because ISIS has inflicted great losses on the Syrian army, which has run away.  This hardly sounds like a cozy agreement between ISIS and the régime.  What's more, it has occurred only in areas like Palmyra, far from the strategic (and/or Alawite) heartland.  The régime has defended important military targets like Tabqa airbase energetically, as it has its holdings in Latakia, Tartous and Damascus.  The idea that the combats between ISIS and the régime are some pantomime is, frankly, infantile.

It is said that, suspiciously, the régime did not reinforce in Palmyra when ISIS attacked.   But the same was true when Jabhat al Nusra's coalition attacked Idlib:

 “Yet, the regime did not send troop reinforcements or even tried to secure the road between Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour.    ("Assad forced to ‘strategic retreat’")
The régime is seen by well-informed commentators as conducting a retreat to its strategic heartland.  This has nothing to do with ISIS-régime collusion.

It is said that ISIS sells oil to the régime.  Perhaps it does; certainly it has some understanding with Assad over some energy assets.  ISIS also denies the régime key energy resources.  In addition it deprives the régime of a great deal of important oil revenue which it reserves for itself.

In any case this is nothing new to the Syrian war.  When the oil fields were under rebel control, they did not interrupt the flow to Damascus.

This also held for gas assets:

At the natural gas-processing plant nearby, which opened in 2000 and once was operated by ConocoPhillips, gas continues to flow through the Arab line – to the Syrian government.

“The gas plant still sends gas to the regime,” said Fadel Abdullah, 31, a former army officer who commands the rebels’ Al Qadisiya brigade that has charge of Deir el Zour. “If it didn’t, the regime would bomb the plant.”

 It's not clear if the rebels profited from this, but is it better if they supplied régime areas for free? Another report agrees that the supply to the régime was maintained because otherwise the régime was likely to bomb the installations (Frantz Glasman, "Deir ez-Zor, à l'est de la Syrie.  Des islamistes, des tribus et du pétrole...", LeMonde Blogs, Un oeil sur la Syrie, 8 December 2013).  Oil sales provided a living for the tribes in the area under rebel control.  No one supposed the rebels were allies of Assad.

It is said that while the régime bombs Aleppo heavily, it hardly touches ISIS-held areas.  This is very much a half-truth because the régime has always bombed ISIS-held areas like Raqqa and Deir Ezzor less, as it did before ISIS held them.  It is also very easy to explain.  Aleppo is Syria's largest city with a pre-war population of over 2,000,000.  It is much closer to strategically crucial areas on the Turkish border and to the South.  Raqqa is a city of 220,000;  Deir Ezzor is about the same size.  They are far from strategically crucial.  The régime devotes more attention to Aleppo because it is far more important, not because it is held by the rebels rather than ISIS.  Perhaps one should add that at this point the régime regularly bombs ISIS-held areas, killing hundreds.  This isn't a very strong sign of ISIS-régime cooperation.

In a related matter, it is said that the rebels have fought the régime much more, and harder, than ISIS.  Of course they have.  The rebels have been entrenched at various times in Aleppo, Homs, and especially the Damascus suburbs.  The fighting has been hardest in these crucial areas.  That has nothing to do with any relationship between Assad and ISIS.

Finally there is at least one specific allegation that the régime has given ISIS air support in its attack on rebel-held Marea (Aleppo) in early June 2015.  The very rarity of the accusation testifies against its significance.   Three-sided wars are themselves very rare.  In a long-running one, it wouldn't be surprising that, once or twice, some régime commander saw some tactical advantage in backing one of his opponents against the other.  That wouldn't be evidence of anything beyond very short-term tactical thinking, certainly not of any alliance, cooperation or kinship between, in this case, the régime and ISIS.

But it's not even clear there is one case of tactical favoring.  What's clear is that the régime bombed, as usual, civilian areas.  The régime bombs such areas constantly, capriciously.  It's no great surprise they might bomb while the area is being defended by the rebels against ISIS.  In particular the régime is always bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, and the consensus has always been that this sort of bombing confers no military advantage.  So such bombing is no reason to claim tactical air support for IS.

Some have apparently claimed, further, that the régime bombed rebel front lines, or that the lines were hit by rockets from régime positions.  These claims are just that, not reports bolstered, as is often the case, by video evidence.  Moreover they have not been investigated.  All things considered, the régime might on one occasion have given tactical air and/or artillery support for ISIS, but there's no real evidence for that.  Not exactly a smoking gun. (*)

In short, no, ISIS and the régime are not allies or anything like that.  They're not de facto allies.  They don't cooperate.  They're not allies of convenience. They don't have a common strategy or agenda. They are bitter enemies, that's all.

Does this matter?

The idea that ISIS and the régime are hand in hand may be intended as propaganda. Rebel commanders in Syria increasingly speak of ISIS-régime collusion, possibly in the hope that the US will attack Assad.  They may believe this to be a plausible strategy.  After all, most people in the West don't know enough about the fighting to contradict such claims.  Since Westerners obviously freak out about ISIS, it might seem advantageous to associate ISIS with the régime.

Maybe there's nothing wrong with propaganda, even lies or mere falsehoods, if they help destroy Assad.   But they won't be much help unless they hold up to scrutiny.  They won't.  The Syrian War gets more scrutiny, in literally millions of cell-phone videos and social media updates, than any other war in all history - maybe than in all of them put together.  Proponents of the Assad-ISIS myth might ask themselves which is more likely:  that all of the people will be fooled all of the time, or that, sooner or later, the myth-making will end up undermining the reputations of the rebels and their supporters.  Did the Russians really look better for all their conspiracy tales about the Ukraine than if they had been straightforward about their reasons of intervening?

One might also ask what myth-making will end up doing to the myth-makers.  Will they get pushed to greater and greater absurdities?  How will they extricate themselves? If ISIS and the régime are allies, mustn't the régime's most deeply involved supporters, Russia and Iran, be allies as well?  What about China, that supports Russian obstruction in the UN Security Council?  Could these nations' battles with ISIS-linked extremists on their own soil be just another charade?  If the US consistently refuses the rebels MANPADS to counter Syrian aviation, doesn't that mean the US, Syria and ISIS must all be in it together?  If the US is in league, mustn't its allies Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia be in league as well?  And if the evidence supports at least an ISIS-Assad alliance of convenience, what will the myth-makers say about the Kurds?

Behind all this, I suspect, is unwillingness to confront uncomfortable truths.  Yes, it would be nice to kill two vultures with one stone.  But nonsense won't make that happen.  While US officials may amuse themselves retweeting conspiracy messages, the US isn't going to wake up one morning saying:  "gosh! why didn't we get it?  Assad and ISIS are one!"  The US doesn't care about Syrians. It cares about radical Islamists, and only because it fears another 9-11.  It knows Assad fights them; it's not going to un-know it.  It knows that the rebels include many Islamists unpalatable to many American Christians and feminists. ('Worrying' about rebel Islamists has established itself as a discrete way of being pro-Assad.) Propaganda won't make Obama hit régime air assets and won't stop him angling for an accommodation with the régime.  As for regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, they genuinely oppose Assad for their own reasons, largely having to do with Iran.  They have their own strategy: let the Americans and Iranians do their thing, but back Islamist ground forces like Jabhat al Nusra to deal with both Assad and ISIS.  These regional powers will pay no attention to tales of an Assad-ISIS alliance.

In any case, what could the myth achieve?  ISIS' incontrovertible atrocities have already drawn such hatred on itself that alliance-with-Assad theories couldn't possibly make a big difference; indeed the hatred is probably the cause of the theories rather than the reverse.  As for Assad, his crimes are so unthinkably enormous that to associate him with ISIS is to associate him with a demonstrably less brutal party.  Propagandists might do better simply trying to persuade the regional powers to increase their efforts against Assad.  As for impressing the Americans with tall tales, that's a lost cause.


(*)  In over two months since this was written, there hasn't been so much as a single allegation of SAA artillery support for ISIS.