On Monday, the U.S. made its most explicit accusation yet that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is not just allowing but helping ISIS’s spread throughout Syria. ISIS launched a new offensive against the embattled anti-Assad rebel groups around the city of Aleppo over the weekend, and the rebels say that the regime starting bombing their positions around the same time, helping ISIS’s advance. In a series of tweets in English and Arabic on Monday, the official account of the U.S. Embassy in Syria accused the regime of aiding ISIS’s campaign:
The suspicion that Assad has allowed ISIS to grow at the expense of the Western-backed rebels is not new. Assad’s forces began launching major attacks against ISIS only in June 2014, when the group already controlled nearly a third of the country’s territory. And it did so only after the U.S. and its allies had begun to threaten military action against the group, putting Western countries in the awkward position of being in a de facto coalition with a government whose overthrow they were also supporting. And even since then, rebels say the regime has concentrated most of its firepower on them, rather than on ISIS, just as ISIS has focused its attacks almost exclusively on rebels rather than regime positions.
In the recent book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, journalists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan lay out the case that Assad facilitated the rise of the group, pointing to a 2011 amnesty in which Assad’s regime let “political prisoners”—mainly jihadists rather than nonviolent activists—out of jail, including several future members of ISIS. Assad had previously facilitated the transit of jihadis to Iraq to fight the U.S. military there. The strategy worked: The international community has shifted its focus from Assad’s brutal rule to ISIS, and the U.S. has been dropping hints that it would be open to a resolution of the Syrian conflict that left Assad in power, despite Assad’s well-documented war crimes including the likely continuing use of chemical weapons.
But Assad’s deal with the devil may come back to hurt him in the long run. The ancient city of Palmyra, captured by ISIS last month, is the first major town the group has taken from the government rather than other rebel groups. This happened before the recent airstrikes, so if there is a partnership between Assad and ISIS, it seems as if it doesn’t apply in all situations. Given its grand worldview, ISIS almost certainly sees Assad’s government as an ally of convenience rather than a long-term partner. If Assad succeeds in putting down the internationally backed rebellion in Syria, it’s unlikely that his new partners will simply leave him be.