Following the grisly murder of an American journalist by extremist militants, one key question remains: How did ISIS abduct James Foley, who was widely considered to be in the custody of groups loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
In the words of Mic politics editor Stefan Becket: "The prevailing assumption was that Foley was being held by pro-Assad forces, or by the regime itself. How did he get from there to ISIS?"
The FBI believes an “organized gang" abducted Foley, who was working for GlobalPost, shortly after he left an internet café on Nov. 22, 2012. In May 2013, GlobalPost President Philip Balboni released the following statement on behalf of himself and Foley’s parents: “We have obtained multiple independent reports from very credible confidential sources … that confirm our assessment that Jim is now being held by the Syrian government in a prison … under the control of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence service. "[I]t is likely Jim is being held with one or more Western journalists," Balboni added, "including most likely at least one other American.”
On Tuesday, ISIS released a grisly, 4-minute video apparently showing Foley's beheading. The video, and claims that ISIS also holds American Time contributor Steven Sotloff, are being investigated by U.S. intelligence services, and Foley's family stated that James "gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people."
What is unclear is if previous investigations into Foley's whereabouts were inaccurate, if ISIS militants somehow captured Foley from some of the regime's most elite security, or if the Assad regime provided Foley to ISIS. "Until recently, James Foley was thought to be in hands of pro-Assad forces. If Assad is handing over Westerners to ISIS to be killed, it indicates Assad feels cornered, looking for leverage," BBC's Kim Ghattas tweeted, adding that the assessment jibes with what her sources in Damascus have told her recently. Ghattas added that Assad providing Foley to ISIS "would confirm Assad tacitly working [with] ISIS and silence any suggestions Assad is the better alternative. "
Assad and ISIS
Bashar al-Assad helped create ISIS by releasing many of its original members from Syria's notorious Sednaya prison on May 31, 2011. He then let the group metastasize over three years to build a narrative that if the U.S. wants to choose sides in the Syrian war, it has to choose between the regime and ISIS as both squeeze mainstream rebels. Bassam Barabandi, who served as a diplomat for several decades in the Syrian Foreign Ministry, explained the strategy in the Atlantic Council:
"Assad first changed the narrative of the newborn Syrian revolution to one of sectarianism, not reform. He then fostered an extremist presence in Syria alongside the activists. Further, he facilitated the influx of foreign extremist fighters to threaten stability in the region. ...The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emerged as one of those facts created to ensure Assad’s survival as he and his Iranian backers seek to frame this conflict as a regional sectarian issue, with a classical choice between military powers and Sunni extremists."
And as the U.S. drops bombs on ISIS in Iraq to curb an offensive in the north of the country, Assad is bombing the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa, Syria, to show America that he can be a valuable counterterrorism partner. "Now that ISIS has fully matured, the Assad regime and Iran offer themselves as partners to the United States," Barabandi wrote. "For the first time, Assad is striking ISIS in Raqqa and locations inside Iraq, in a perverse harvest of the terrorist seeds he planted to quash the civilian-led reform movement."
Given such a cynical plan, it is well within Assad's means and motives to give Western captors to the extremists that he helped make strong. "This is now the key question: Was Foley taken by the Assad regime?" Middle East analyst Kyle Orton writes. " If he was, then those who believe that Bashar al-Assad is a bulwark against [extremist jihadists] have yet another question to answer about their thesis."
[UPDATE 8:46 EDT] Foreing Policy Middle East Editor David Kenner tweeted James Foley's last interview, "given in Idlib Province in 2012, describing Assad regime attacks on civilians."
See Also: Should Obama Work With Assad?