Almost every day on my Twitter feed, I come across allegations that the jihadis operating in Syria- in particular, the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) or "al-Qa'ida" more generally (by which Jabhat al-Nusra is meant as well)- are somehow in secret collaboration with the Assad regime, if not agents and creations of the regime.
Indeed, this theme appears to have been prominent at a Chicago Council event held yesterday. "For the first time in 3 years I hear something that makes sense from experts about Syria. Assad regime is helping al-Qa'ida. We might discover very soon Assad regime coordinating and supporting al-Qa'ida fighters," tweeted Diana Rudha al-Shammary, covering the event live yesterday.
In a somewhat similar vein, Syria Report tweeted on February 3, commenting on the official al-Qa'ida Central (AQC) statement clarifying that ISIS has no links with AQC: "Their [ISIS'] leaders take orders from Assad's intelligence." On January 12, @TaziMorocco, a person who regularly interacts with me on Twitter, commented: "Assad Air Force Intelligence officers in Damascus decided in 2012 to create and supply ISIS thugs in order to destroy the rebellion."
Given the widespread nature of these allegations, culminating in the recent opposition-in-exile's report claiming Assad-ISIS collaboration, I believe it to be worth addressing the claims. I will deal with each of the main lines of argument used to advance the thesis.
Usefulness to Assad's Narrative
It is appropriate to state the following as a virtual preface. There is no doubt that the jihadi presence in Syria- whether in the form of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the multiple muhajireen-led battalions- is useful to the Assad's narrative on the rebellion as a foreign-backed "takfiri/Wahhabi" conspiracy against Syria.
It is also clear that the regime has tried to exploit this presence to compel the opposition-in-exile at the Geneva talks into accepting that Assad should stay in power, and that the regime and opposition should instead work together to crush ISIS et al.- an opportunity that Assad hopes could quell the entire rebellion and reassert control over the whole country, which has been and remains his goal.
However, it must be noted that it is not only these groups with global jihadi visions that serve his narrative, but also the Islamic Front (IF), which may well be the largest single rebel coalition on the ground, with some blurring between the national/transnational distinction. The IF's main leaders, backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all engage in virulently sectarian rhetoric, labeling Alawites as "Nusayris" and Shi'a as "Rafidites" (e.g. see these remarks by Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush).
The mere existence of such rhetoric and the IF's prominence- regardless of what happens on the ground- are enough to provide considerable credence to the regime's characterization of the opposition as sectarian. Further, the sectarian rhetoric of the IF has translated to results on the ground, most recently with reports of a massacre of Alawites in the Hama village of Ma'an after it was taken over by Ahrar ash-Sham in coordination with Jund al-Aqsa- a battalion with an ideology identical to that of ISIS but maintaining better relations overall than ISIS maintains with other rebel groups
Initially, the National Defense Force, which was mainly responsible for defending the village and was largely able to evacuate the village's residents successfully, released a toll of 20 civilians killed by the rebels, including 11 members of a single family (the Khadur family). The incident has since been corroborated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with photos subsequently emerging of the victims.
None of this is to deny sectarianism exists on the regime side, as evinced by sectarian massacres perpetrated by forces fighting for the regime, whether by Alawite irregular militiamen (the Houla massacre) or foreign Shi'a militiamen (the Nabk massacre in rural Damascus province as part of the regime's offensive to push through Qalamoun; like the Ma'an massacre, numerous members of a single family- the Masto family- were wiped out). The point is that Assad is a beneficiary not only of ISIS' presence but also of multiple other rebel groups, but it does not follow that these groups must be secretly working with the regime.
Infiltration by the Regime
This section could also be seen as a prefatory note. There is also no doubt that ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have regime infiltrators. One should note an interview back in the summer with one Abdullah Abu Mus'ab al-Suri, an assistant to ISIS' northern amir Omar ash-Shishani, in which he affirmed: "Indeed the [Islamic] state has become greatly infiltrated by the Syrian regime; and that has led to harm to the reputation of the state and shaking of its security."
However, infiltration is hardly a surprise, and does not show a group is a regime agent. Infiltration amongst both the opposition and regime sides is only to be expected in a time of war, as when the predecessor of Jaysh al-Islam- Liwa al-Islam- was able to infiltrate regime ranks and perpetrate the suicide attack in summer 2012 that killed the Defense Minister. On the other side, former regime officers- leaving aside what their real loyalties might be- can be found across the rebel spectrum.
We can now move on to consider more specific data points.
It has been reported that Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in particular have been selling oil and gas in eastern Syria to the regime. The Daily Telegraph's report, relying on testimony from unnamed Western intelligence sources, should not be taken as anything ground-breaking: it was already reported as far back as May 2013 by The Guardian. Given the inability and reluctance of outsiders generally to get on the ground in Syria, Western intelligence sources do not necessarily have more access to information than social media activists and journalists, but are rather depending on the same sources, whether through open access online or through local contacts via online communication or other means, such as meetings in the Turkish border areas.
In any case, there is no reason to doubt that Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have been selling oil and gas to the regime, but the picture is far more complex than just to conclude the two organizations must be regime agents. Broadly, competition for oil and gas resources in the east among rebel groups fall into three families: Jabhat al-Nusra sometimes aligned with IF groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham, ISIS, and the YPG.
All of these factions deal with the regime in selling oil and gas, not because they wish to bolster the regime, but rather because such a transaction is the simplest and most logical way to exploit these resources for profit and cement their hold in the eastern areas.
In eastern Syria, the regime's ground forces presence has largely been reduced to strongholds in parts of the city of Deir az-Zor, parts of the city of al-Hasakah, and parts of the city of Qamishli (where its control was substantially reduced last year in the face of the YPG's expansion). Though it maintains some air bases like Deir az-Zor military airport, which is currently under rebel siege, the regime lacks manpower to launch any kind of offensive to retake rebel or Kurdish territory. Seeking some kind of intermediaries to strike deals for oil and gas is therefore also a logical step on the part of the regime, which is now largely dependent on Iraqi oil imports via Lebanese and Egyptian third-party intermediaries. Given this dependency, the rebels and YPG have no reason to assume that selling oil and gas to the regime will harm their territorial control.
In any case, there is no evidence that any of the rebel groups have refrained from confronting regime forces in eastern areas: ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and IF groups have all participated in fighting against regime forces in the city of Deir az-Zor. The group that comes closest to seeking territorial accommodation with the regime is the YPG, for a nebulous and uneasy co-existence is maintained in Qamishli.
Figure 2: Documentary evidence of oil dealings between the YPG and the regime.
Figure 3: Illustrating the complexity of intra-rebel relations over control of oil and gas resources: factions including Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar ash-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra appealed to the consultation council of ISIS and ISIS' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late November to mediate a dispute over a recently captured oil field.
Figure 4: Rebels do not only deal in oil and gas when it comes to exchanges between regime and rebel areas. In Aleppo, for example, rebel groups (not just ISIS) have been able to regulate what kind of goods can come for residents in regime-controlled areas in return for extorting profits from the regime. In this statement from July 2013, ISIS imposes its own regulations about what cannot be allowed to enter regime-held areas in Aleppo: gasoline, diesel fuel, anything forbidden according to Shari'a (e.g. cigarettes), and food in large quantity.
Fighting the Regime and Aerial Bombardments
Along with the oil-deals, this point forms a key part of the argument that jihadis are aligned with or working for the regime. The allegations here are more directed at ISIS than other jihadi groups, since it is undeniable that Jabhat al-Nusra is currently playing a leading role on multiple battlefronts, including the Qalamoun area, where regime advances have largely been halted, East Ghouta (where a number of battalions have recently pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra) Deraa, and Deir az-Zor.
Figure 5: Katiba Junud al-Rahman, which pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra in East Ghouta in mid-January.
Figure 6: Katiba Asima al-Ghouta, another battalion in East Ghouta that pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra in mid-January.
With ISIS, the reasoning goes that the group does not focus on fighting regime forces, such that it even leaves regime areas alone, and in return the regime agrees not to bomb ISIS-held territory.
This line of argument overlooks that ISIS has a record of fighting the regime on multiple fronts, including the Sheikh Said area of Aleppo province, Kwiris military airbase (where an offensive is ongoing under the leadership of muhajireen battalion Suqur al-Izz, in coordination with the Green Battalion, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra), Nubl and Zahara, Brigade 17 airbase in Raqqa province, Tabqa military airport, Qalamoun, Sayyida Zainab, Sakhna in Homs desert, the Qamishli area, and Latakia province. Besides these locations, one should also remember ISIS' leading role in the capture of Mannagh airbase.
Figure 7: Operation "And Don't Separate": a Nusra-ISIS-Green Battalion-Suqur al-Izz-Jaysh Mohammed-Ansar al-Mahdi joint operation announced this month on Kwiris military airbase.
It is of course true that ISIS is now fighting on fewer fronts against regime forces since the wider infighting with other rebels broke out, but that is only to be expected: remaining too thinly spread out would have cost the group even more territorial losses. Even so, following ISIS' seizure of Raqqa city, Tel Abyad, Tabqa and Ma'adan, it is not true that ISIS has ignored the regime's airbases in Raqqa province, engaging in clashes with regime forces around Brigade 17 in mid to late January before being cleared out by the end of month through airstrikes on the surroundings.
As for Tabqa military airport, this area has been subjected to mortar shelling recently by ISIS in collaboration with Liwa Owais al-Qorani, an independent battalion in Tabqa that has not pledged bay'ah (allegiance) to ISIS but rather, as a local anti-ISIS Raqqa contact explained to me, is subordinate to and "takes orders from ISIS."
Coming to regime airstrikes, it is untrue that the regime has not hit ISIS strongholds, having struck Raqqa city as recently on February 7. The counter-claim is that since ISIS advertises itself on social media so much, why does the regime not strike these positions? However, this argument firstly presumes that the regime's air force has any kind of precision in launching airstrikes. Second, as the regime's record elsewhere demonstrates, targeting of civilian areas in rebel-held territory is part of its tactics.
In any event, one must ask what the regime would gain strategically by constantly bombing ISIS strongholds in Raqqa province, or ISIS strongholds elsewhere, for that matter, located far beyond the frontlines. As in the wider east of Syria, the regime lacks ground forces to launch an offensive to retake any territory in Raqqa province, and must depend on airlifts from elsewhere to maintain its remaining airbases. Hence, the regime is focusing its airstrikes where it has some real expectations of advancing: most notably in Aleppo city.
Figure 8: ISIS fires projectiles at Brigade 17 airbase. Image from mid-January.
Figure 9: ISIS engages in fighting around Brigade 17 airbase. Late January. The clearing out of the surroundings of Brigade 17 was reported by pro-regime Raqqa sources, who were also the first to report ISIS' establishment of a "Khansaa Battalion" of women in Raqqa to enforce the wearing of the niqab, later corroborated by @TahrirSy.
Figure 10: ISIS fighters (in cooperation with Liwa Owais al-Qorani) prepare to shell Tabqa military airport. Photo from February 7.
Figure 11: Liwa Owais al-Qorani issuing a statement on January 10, giving an update on the situation in Tabqa. The spokesman affirms the group's independence, and its support for implementing Shari'a and overthrowing the "Nusayri" regime, ensuring that the Shahada will be supreme. The spokesman then emphasizes that all Islamic factions are brothers in religion, indicating the group's unwillingness to fight ISIS and its subsequent subjugation under ISIS' command.
Given how much ISIS in particular focuses on expanding itself within rebel-held areas and the intense infighting that has spread to a large number of localities, it might seem understandable why other rebels and activists, feeling a sense of 'betrayal' seek to explain events in terms of an ISIS-regime conspiracy. After all, there is also the regime's prior record of facilitating the inflow of jihadis into Iraq to fight coalition forces during the U.S. occupation. That Assad wanted the rebellion to have a jihadi and sectarian face from day one is obvious, and the international community has been right to reject the regime as the solution to the jihadi problem and the corrosive sectarianism in Syria.
However, it must be emphasized that no conclusive evidence exists illustrating an active ISIS-regime collaboration; and for Jabhat al-Nusra, it is even more implausible. Much of the lines of argument applied to ISIS can also be applied to other groups outside the jihadi fold: most notably, the YPG and some of the IF. The YPG is frequently accused by other rebels of being a regime agent, but its agenda is quite clearly separate from that of the regime: namely, it is seeking Kurdish autonomy and is securing a PYD monopoly in Kurdish areas, in line with the PYD's authoritarianism that is shared by most Kurdish political factions.
On the subject of the historical record, the duration of Assad support for the jihadis is exaggerated. As al-Qa'ida in Iraq vanished through absorption into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) umbrella in 2006-7, the inflow of muhajireen into Iraq largely ceased as ISI became almost entirely Iraqi, particularly at the leadership level (cf. this article by Aaron Zelin on the sparks of a low-level jihadi campaign against Assad in Syria that was ultimately quashed in the period 2007-2010).
In any case, the regime also provided a safe haven for other Iraqi insurgents outside al-Qa'ida and ISI, and as Sunnis joined the political process in 2008-9, the regime initially hoped for an Ayad Allawi victory in the 2010 elections, reflecting its then growing ties with Turkey and an opposition to the U.S.'s preferred candidate Maliki, who has always loathed Assad. Indeed, Assad's eventual switch of support to Maliki after intense lobbying was only ever a cosmetic change.
As for ISIS' behavior, there are much simpler explanations that do not require resort to conspiracy. One need only look at its name to see what its agenda is and the problems therein: Islamic State. ISIS does not merely consider itself a group (jamaat) or faction (faseel). It believes foremost in the setting up of an Islamic state as the basis for a Caliphate that should encompass the entire world.
Not content with being reduced to mere organizational status, it follows that ISIS believes that it alone has the right to rule, and so it is ultimately not amenable to power-sharing or submitting to independent authority, even with other groups who share its ideology of Caliphate and world domination. That ISIS' top priority is to set up its dream Islamic state in rebel-held areas where it is easiest to establish a presence hardly comes as a surprise. There is no need to explain what it does in terms of being a secret regime agent.
Ultimately, attempting to prove an ISIS-regime conspiracy without any conclusive evidence is unhelpful, because it draws attention away from the real reasons why ISIS grew and gained such prominence: namely, rebel groups tolerated ISIS. Back in the summer of last year, I noted how pace the claims of SMC circles, not all those even by the FSA banner were hostile to ISIS. The most prominent case-in-point is Colonel Oqaidi, who used to head the Aleppo FSA military council. Oqaidi constantly downplayed the idea that ISIS constituted a threat, describing his relations with ISIS as "excellent" in an interview with Orient News and deriding concerns about its conduct as "media intimidation."
These words were spoken in appreciation of ISIS' efforts to help capture Mannagh airbase. But the collaboration between ISIS and other groups did not end there. There was also the completely unnecessary fighting in the mid and late summer against the YPG whereby other rebel groups in Hasakah, Raqqa and Aleppo governorates threw in their lot with ISIS after clashes broke out between ISIS aligned with Jabhat al-Nusra and the YPG in Ras al-Ayn, culminating in the expulsion of the former two groups in mid-July.
The other rebel groups that assisted ISIS in the wider conflict here included Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar ash-Sham, Suqur ash-Sham, and FSA-banner groups such as Liwa al-Hamza, Ibn Taymiyya (both Tel Abyad area) and Liwa Ahrar al-Jazira al-Thawri (Hasakah province, to be distinguished from the Liwa Ahrar al-Jazira of Shammar tribesmen in Yaroubiya that aided the YPG in expelling ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra). Yet the end result of this fighting has been nothing more than a stalemate with each side consolidating their positions. The sole reason for the other rebels' participation in the fight against the YPG is the dogmatic belief that the YPG is a regime agent, combined with general hostility to notions of Kurdish autonomy.
Perhaps most important to consider here is the extent to which other rebel groups- particularly those that now constitute the IF- attempted to resolve problems with ISIS via mediation and negotiation, rather than deciding that it constituted a menace and/or regime agent that needed to be uprooted.
Contrary to what ISIS members and supporters claim, there was no pre-planned 'sahwa' against ISIS. Till the very end of 2013, IF and its constituent groups tried to resolve problems with ISIS peacefully, with the most notable case being Liwa al-Tawhid's mediation in Azaz between Northern Storm and ISIS. Despite the agreed ceasefire, ISIS took advantage of it and eventually took over Azaz, with Liwa al-Tawhid and other groups effectively abandoning Azaz to ISIS. Similarly, the ultimate spark of the current infighting was the Ahrar ash-Sham-ISIS dispute over Maskanah that saw Ahrar ash-Sham's Abu Rayyan tortured to death, even as Ahrar ash-Sham had tried to resolve the dispute over the town peacefully.
Even after the infighting broke out, ISIS has been able to exploit rebel disunity in areas to take advantage. This was notable in Tel Abyad, for example, where some Ahrar ash-Sham affiliates refused to participate in fighting against ISIS on the grounds that the "Nusayri" and "Rafidite" enemy was the bigger priority. Together with Liwa al-Hamza's tacit collaboration with ISIS, ISIS eventually took over Tel Abyad.
In Tel Hamees and the Qamishli area, Ahrar ash-Sham continued coordinating with ISIS, Liwa Ansar al-Khilafa (only in Qamishli area) and Jabhat al-Nusra as though nothing was happening elsewhere. A renewed offensive was also declared on Ras al-Ayn, but back in the rebel-held areas in the province, ISIS eventually turned on Ahrar ash-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, giving ISIS the upper-hand with many from Ahrar ash-Sham forced to pledge bay'ah to ISIS. In Damascus province, no infighting has broken out yet, and ISIS' training camps have been left alone and the group carries out some operations against regime-held areas.
On a more general level, ISIS was even offered another chance for reconciliation as part of Sheikh Muheisseni's "Ummah Initiative," which all major rebel groupings except ISIS accepted. Sheikh Muheisseni's earlier role was more limited to maintaining relations between ISIS and the other jihadi groups as well as Ahrar ash-Sham, such that he organized joint ISIS-Nusra-Ahrar da'wah events in Aleppo in the fall of last year.
Figure 12: ISIS-Ahrar-Nusra joint da'wah meeting in Aleppo, organized by Sheikh Muheisseni in late October.
On the international level, there is blame to go around. While Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu is free to claim ISIS and the Assad regime are in partnership, he is overlooking Turkey's own role in facilitating the inflow of foreign fighters into Syria, the majority of whom congregate to ISIS' banner. In turning a blind eye for so long, there was no doubt hope that the jihadis in general would be useful proxies against the YPG, but Turkey must now face the consequences of rebel infighting.
When faced with these realities regarding prior rebel abetting of ISIS' growth, it is then claimed that the rebels were 'forced' to turn to ISIS. This statement reflects cognitive dissonance, for in claiming they had to seek out ISIS' help, it must be acknowledged that ISIS fights against regime forces. If they always knew ISIS was conspiring with the regime, why did they not uproot it while the organization was still relatively weak?
The growth of ISIS has lessons for the rebels. How long will they tolerate Jabhat al-Nusra? Prior to the announcement of ISIS, the group was subject to far more allegations of collaborating with the regime, even as it maintained generally excellent working relations with other rebel groups, which I predicted would continue to flourish despite the announcement of ISIS and Jowlani's declaration of an allegiance to AQC. That prediction has been vindicated, but even further, Jabhat al-Nusra's overall standing has improved. Indeed, besides the leading roles in multiple battle fronts as I stated above, Jabhat al-Nusra is the leading faction in a number of Deir az-Zor localities and the leading authority throughout the province's Shari'a committees.
Figure 13: Jabhat al-Nusra welcomes you to Abu Kamal. Emphasizing its loyalty to al-Qa'ida: "Tanzim al-Qa'ida wa al-Jihad fi Bilad ash-Sham." Despite some hopes of Jabhat al-Nusra relenting on its bay'ah to AQC, the trends have gone the opposite way in light of the tensions with ISIS. Shari'a strictures are already being implemented in the area, including principles such as banning alcohol and qisas (retaliation).
Despite the clear AQC connection, many rebels and activists deny that Jabhat al-Nusra has any interest in an agenda that ultimately conflicts with their own, specifically in that the group like ISIS supports the establishment of a Caliphate. Of course that is not to deny the group's pragmatism or that not all those who pledge allegiance are committed to the leadership's real ideological agenda, but this agenda cannot be overlooked.
Sometimes, the denial of Jabhat al-Nusra's agenda takes on bizarre forms. For instance, one Syrian Revolutionaries Front commander I spoke to in Idlib characterized the IF as "extremists" for the dominance of Salafi ideology and taking support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, such that they would become the "next ISIS," yet he denied that Jabhat al-Nusra was similarly extremist.
One should also note the opposition-in-exile's denunciation of the U.S.'s designation of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization back at the end of 2012, despite the fact that U.S. intelligence's analysis of the group as an ISI front in origin turned out to be correct. And what would rebels now say about American allegations that Iran is facilitating inflow of al-Qa'ida militants into Syria for Jabhat al-Nusra? One cannot imagine a positive reception.
The clashes of agendas- in addition to more mundane factors (e.g. control of resources)- are bound to produce tensions in the future, whether or not ISIS is ultimately driven out of Syria. There are many groups beyond ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra that support a Caliphate, such as the muhajireen battalions, many members of IF groups, particularly in Ahrar ash-Sham, where there is clearly an AQC-aligned faction: in fact, one muhajir in Ahrar ash-Sham claimed to me that most members of the group support a Caliphate, but a minority believe in an Islamic Emirate as a prelude to a Caliphate in the far future.
Besides some clear pro-Caliphate trends in IF, there are also many independent groupings supporting this political idea (e.g. Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna and Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya in Abu Kamal; Saraya ash-Sham in Homs governorate; and Harakat Fajr ash-Sham al-Islamiya in Aleppo province; to name just a few).
This conflicts, for example, with the new Jaysh al-Mujahideen coalition, whose agenda, as one religious sheikh from the organization told me, is within a strict national framework, supporting an "Islamic state: moderate Salafist." It is also in conflict with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, whose ideology is generally much more vaguely Islamist.
Who will be to blame when such further infighting breaks out? Useful as Jabhat al-Nusra and the hardline rhetoric of the Islamic Front may have been to Assad's narrative, it will ultimately be the failure at rebel unity and the turning to more hardline forces in the first place that will be to blame.