Assad’s ISIS Gambit
By: Tariq Alhomayed/Asharq Alawsat
Thursday, 21 Aug, 2014
When one sees Bashar Al-Assad’s media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban speaking on CNN regarding the danger represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one can feel only a sense of unease. How can she speak about the threat of ISIS when she represents a regime that is no less dangerous or criminal?
The strangest thing is that while on CNN, Shaaban spoke of the danger ISIS represents to the whole region, while the facts on the ground indicate that ISIS emerged and grew under the Assad regime. Its leaders sprung from Syrian prisons, while Syrian military forces have yet to successfully attack them on the ground, even after the Americans have taken action against ISIS fighters in Iraq. It is clear today that Assad believes the time is ripe to exploit ISIS’s presence and present himself as the victim of extremism and extremists. It is clear that this has been among Assad’s tactics from the start of the revolution, and explains his troops’ lack of real action against ISIS until now. This is something that even the international news agencies have noticed. A recent Reuters report said: “Until this summer, Assad’s forces held off from targeting [ISIS] . . . This has allowed the group to thrive and also weaken less hardline opposition groups that are backed by the West.” This is truly what Assad did, and he is now trying to use the international fear of ISIS for his own ends.
The attempt to exploit a threat to serve one’s own interests is a policy that the Assad regime has long often resorted to, not just in Syria but also in Lebanon and Iraq, and is a strategy that Assad has pursued with other extremist Islamist groups. Isn’t it true that Al-Qaeda fighters were able to enter Iraq through the Syria border? What about the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and the case of Abu Adas, an alleged suicide bomber who initially claimed responsibility for the 2004 assassination of Hariri, before it was revealed that he had been forced to make the video-taped confession?
These previous examples of Assad’s tricks show that he is trying to recreate them today in Syria. It is clear that Assad wanted to turn the tables on the Americans, particularly after Washington warned that Syria had become a gathering place for extremists and militants. Either the extremist groups would fight it out among themselves, or they would be easier to target, according to the American way of thinking. It seems that Assad adopted this idea for his own purposes, allowing ISIS to fight the Al-Nusra Front while concentrating his own forces against the Free Syrian Army, clamping down on his opponents and attempting to polish his image in front of the eyes of the world.
Assad calculated that as a result of this, his enemies would destroy themselves, or he would be able to take advantage of the major political shifts that are taking place in the region to overcome his opponents with the help of international backing. This is precisely what Bashar Al-Assad is seeking to do today, but this can only be achieved if the international community naively permits it to happen.