Who is afraid of ISIS? Not Assad

Destruction in Homs, Syria
Teaser Image Caption
Destruction in Homs, Syria

With ISIS’ capture of Mosul, a nightmare seems to be becoming a reality: the development of a caliphate state in the heart of the Middle East, which is obliterating the established borders and could engage the whole region in a protracted war between various militias.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki immediately called for US support, Iran offered to cooperate with the US, Hisbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah stated he would be ready to dispatch five times as many fighters to Iraq than he sent in support of Assad to Syria – only Damascus let the matter rest, offering only succinct statements of solidarity with “the Iraqi government, army and people”.

ISIS obtained rich spoils in Mosul. It captured sophisticated US-financed military equipment left behind by an Iraqi army that did not even try to defend their territory. Through oil sales to the regimes in Iraq and Syria, as well as the ransacking of Mosul’s bank treasuries, ISIS turned into the wealthiest terror group of all time - a “recruitment bonanza,” as Michael Weiss described it in his article “Assisted Suicide”.

What ISIS can accomplish with access to capital should not be underestimated. Their power is derived primarily from two sources:  Money, and by terrorizing people into submission through exceedingly brutal behavior. Whereas many Syrians were not frightened into submission by the Assad regime’s barrel bombs and chemical weapons, ISIS is associated with such horror that the organization encountered little resistance when marching into rebel-held areas in northern Syrian last fall. Nevertheless, moderate factions have found the courage to rise against ISIS and reclaim large territories since January 2014. Despite these noteworthy gains, ISIS was not wiped from the map largely because, unlike the Free Syrian Army, they had something to offer:  money to pay the salaries of fighters, food for distribution, and the ability to end the formerly endemic power cuts in the city of Raqqa through the purchase of electricity.

With ever larger segments of the Syrian population impoverished, financial incentives are a more compelling reason for fighters to switch allegiance from other militias to ISIS, rather than their ideology and violence, which do not resonate well with the majority of Syrian citizens.

Assad profits from ISIS

The connection between Syria and Iraq has long been interesting for ISIS activity in the region. A large share of ISIS funding, for example, consisted in protection money the radicals extorted from businessmen in Mosul. The recent gains are on an entirely new scale and have the potential to multiply the troops of ISIS that, so far, consist of no more than a few hundred men, which will make a force to reckon with in numbers as well.

So why does Assad not seem to be worried? One reason is because ISIS has been a lifeline for him thus far. Even in early 2011, long before there were any Islamist militias in Syria, the regime labeled the protesters as terrorists. Ever since, it has been relentless in portraying itself as a bulwark against extremism. The establishment of radical groups played into the regime’s hands: in a religiously diverse state, the potential for aggression from Islamists could no longer be ignored. ISIS proved to be so great a specter to the international community that no assistance to the Syrian Opposition could be given without fear of supporting terrorism. On the internal level, ISIS did not pose a serious threat to the regime because fighting was limited to remote areas of Syira – mainly Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor close to the Iraqi border. Both are as far as possible from Assad’s heartland of Damascus and the coastal area.

Moreover, the fighting does not take place between extremists and the regime. This is particularly evident in Deir ez-Zor, a city that is hemmed in by Assad on one side and ISIS on the other, yet both are fighting the moderate rebels squeezed between them rather than one another. So far, there is no evidence of Assad’s air force or troops seriously targeting the well-known positions of ISIS. At the same time, it is well-documented that his forces are targeting civilians and other rebel groups while leaving alone or even indirectly helping extremists in the same areas. The latest example is the air raids on Raqqa, a city entirely under ISIS control: the pictures from the bombardment show that not even the windows of ISIS headquarters were shattered; damage was done only to the street in front of the building.

The Winner is Assad

The rise of ISIS is viewed more as driver of state collapse than as a consequence thereof. The discussion about recent developments has therefore been focused on how to combat this group, rather than examining the reason for its emergence or Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki’s politics of sectarian division that they have been promoting in their respective countries. It does not matter to these leaders that the consequence – violence from sectarian militias – cannot be contained.

Assad relies on the power of his word within the international community. He has successfully established the narrative that the world faced the choice between his regime and Islamic extremists. Greater than their concern for what happens in the region, the West fears what damage returning jihadists might cause in their home countries.

Should ISIS be allowed to become much more powerful in Syria, Assad can benefit from the West’s distorted perception of extremism. One hundred fifty thousand casualties, eleven thousand confirmed prisoners tortured to death, tens of thousands of disappeared, and nine million IDPs and refugees: they all go unheard, so long as the one responsible for it does not invoke Islam as a justification for his deeds. Therefore Assad can rest assured that ISIS increasing in strength can only be of benefit to him. 



First Published in German in taz Newspaper on June 25th, 2014