CURATED BY Zack Beauchamp
2014-09-10 13:31:36 -0400
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It is true that ISIS opposes Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria, and the two constantly fight one another in Syria. But calling ISIS a "Syrian rebel group" misses two critical facts about ISIS. First, it's a transnational organization, not rooted in any one country, with lots of fighters who come from outside the country and are motivated by global jihadist aims as well as the Syrian war specifically. Second, Assad and ISIS are not-so-secretly helping each other out in some crucial ways, even as they fight. ISIS and Assad are frenemies, not full-on opponents.
For one thing, ISIS predated the Syrian civil war. It started as al-Qaeda in Iraq in the mid-2000s and, after that group was defeated by Iraqis and American forces around 2008, reformed in the same country. Between 2008 and 2011, ISIS rebuilt itself out of former prisoners and ex-Saddam era Iraqi army officers. ISIS did not grow out of the Syrian rebellion: it took advantage of it.
Now, it's true the war in Syria benefitted ISIS tremendously. It allowed ISIS to get battlefield experience, attracted a ton of financial support from Gulf states and private donors looking to oust Assad, and a crucial safe haven in eastern Syria. ISIS also absorbed a lot of recruits from Syrian rebel groups — illustrating, incidentally, why arming the "good" Syrian rebels probably wouldn't have destroyed ISIS.
In a weird way, this has all benefitted Assad. The Syrian dictator has vigorously pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy during the war. He's tried hard to push the sectarian angle of the civil war, making it into a life-or-death struggle for his Alawite (Shia) and Christian supporters against the Sunni majority. ISIS' extremism has helped convince Alawites that defecting the rebels means the destruction of their homes and communities.
And Assad has also used ISIS to divide his other opponents: the moderate Free Syrian Army, other Islamist groups, and the United States. One way he's done that is by focusing Syria's military efforts on the moderate Syrian rebels, leaving ISIS relatively unscathed. By allowing ISIS and other Islamist groups to become stronger at the expensive of other rebels, Assad made it much harder for the US to intervene against him without benefitting the rebels. And ISIS and moderate rebels have begun fighting against one another, further dividing the war in a way that's beneficial to Assad.
In essence, Assad and ISIS seem to have made an implicit deal: ISIS temporarily gets a relatively free ride in some chunks of Syria, while Assad gets to weaken his other opponents. The two sides still hate each other, but both benefit from the status quo.
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