Like the Pakistan military and ISI, Assad may be aiding jihadists who operate on his own soil.
In an article at Foreign Policy titled The Disappeared, James Traub reports on journalists who have been kidnapped in Syria, either by Islamist extremist rebels or by forces for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. At one point he was introduced to (emphasis added):
… Hamza Ghadban, a Syrian journalist. … He was convinced, as many rebel sympathizers are, that the regime has subterranean connections with the foreign jihadists. He told me that the ISIS camp in Aleppo had been unscathed until the jihadists decamped, while the next-door headquarters of the Tawhid Brigade, affiliated with the FSA, had been leveled by government artillery. In Raqqa, too, the ISIS base had not been shelled. It’s also widely believed that in the summer of 2012, Assad released from prison some of the Sunni extremists who had fought American troops in Iraq, and who may then have joined with foreign fighters to form ISIS. Those fighters now seem at least as preoccupied with dislodging moderate rebels from key checkpoints and northern towns as they are with fighting the regime.
Assad’s strategy is not unlike that of the Pakistan military and ISI giving free rein to jihadists, even though they create havoc within Pakistan. These days, they’re more likely to support jihadists fighting in Afghanistan than domestically, but the policy has always been a recipe for blowback. Though this doesn’t apply to Pakistan. Traub again.
It’s bizarre to think that Assad may have struck a deal with his bitterest enemies, yet the jihadists have vindicated in a spectacularly brutal fashion his longtime claim that he is not fighting Syrian patriots, but foreign terrorists.
The worst part is that Assad’s strategy seems to be working. Traub writes:
The rise of these al Qaeda affiliates has cut the ground out from Western critics who advocate international military support for the rebel cause. … ISIS has done far more harm to the rebels’ cause than it has to the regime. In early December, the U.S. government temporarily suspended delivery of nonlethal aid to the moderate rebels, over concerns that it was being regularly seized by al Qaeda.
Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.