November 16, 2014
October 22, 2014
The latest issue of the New York Review of Books has an article by Charles Glass titled “In the Syria We Don’t Know” that has been making the rounds on the Internet. I have seen links to it from Vijay Prashad on Twitter, on the Greenleft mailing list in Australia, and just this morning on ZNet. Apparently, those who link to it must have taken heart in Glass’s assurance that the Baathists were getting the upper hand:
As Bashar’s prospects improve with each American sortie against his enemies in the east of the country, Damascus and the populous towns to the north have been enjoying a respite of sorts from war. The Syrian Ministry of Education reported that, of the 22,000 schools in the country, more than 17,000 of them reopened on time in the middle of September. Needless to say, almost all of the functioning schools are in government-held areas. The souks in the old city of Damascus, unlike their more extensive and now destroyed counterparts in Aleppo, are open. Shops selling meat, vegetables, spices, and other basic items to the local population are doing well, although the tourist boutiques in and around the famous Souk Hamadieh have no customers apart from UN workers and a few remaining diplomats. At night, restaurants in most neighborhoods are, if not full, nearly so. Everything from wine to grilled chicken is plentiful, albeit at prices higher than before the war. Traffic remains heavy, although somewhat less obstructed since June when the government felt confident enough to remove many of its checkpoints. Electricity is intermittent, and those who can afford private generators use them in the off-hours.
So, any normal person—especially those who prefer RT.com to Aljazeera—would conclude that it was best for Assad to stay the course, no matter how many barrel bombs it takes to level Aleppo and other cities to the ground just as long as there is meat, vegetables, and spices for sale in Damascus.
I took note of Glass in an article titled “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals on Syria” that was rejected by the publishers of Critical Muslim because they feared it would run afoul of British libel laws. I post the relevant section below:
Arguably, the New York Review of Books and its counterpart the London Review of Books have served as latter day equivalents of Action Française, serving propaganda for a vicious dictatorship that has little connection to its self-flattering image as a beacon of human rights.
Even when the title of an NY Review article foreshadows a condemnation of the Ba‘athists, the content remains consistent with the “plague on both your houses” narrative that pervades this intellectual milieu. In a December 5th 2013 article titled “Syria: On the Way to Genocide?”, Charles Glass ends up echoing the talking points of more openly Ba‘athist elements:
The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side.
As is so often the case, the use of the passive voice allows the writer to condemn the rebels without any evidence. “Alleged to have been” leads to the obvious question as to who is responsible for the allegation. Was it Vladimir Putin? Assad’s propaganda nun Mother Agnes Mariam? Inquiring minds would like to know.
On August 20th 2012 Glass penned another article for the Review titled “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed” that portrayed the rebels as a wanton mob invading the civilized city. He wrote:
While the urban unemployed had good reason to support a revolution that might improve their chances in life, the thousands who had jobs at the beginning of the revolution and lost them when the Free Army burned their workplaces are understandably resentful. There are stories of workers taking up arms to protect their factories and risking their lives to save their employers from kidnappers.
Since Charles Glass is a Middle East analyst for NBC News, it is not surprising that he can allude to ‘stories’ of workers taking up arms against the rebels to protect the bosses. NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric, and naturally its analyst will find arguments for preserving Ba‘athist rule. You can do business with al-Assad, but the plebian rebels might be as difficult to deal with as the Libyan militias.
Glass was in the graduate program of the American University in Beirut, but did not complete his PhD. His best-known work is “Tribes With Flags: A Dangerous Passage Through the Chaos of the Middle East”, a title redolent of Orientalism. In a March 22nd 2011 NY Times column, Thomas Friedman adopted Glass’s thesis to explain why the natives might not be ready for self-rule:
[T]here are two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens.
Libya and Syria were unfortunate enough to be the kinds of ‘artificial states’ that were unsuited for democracy.
September 29, 2014
Well, I hate saying that I told you so but I did tell you so: When the USA finally intervenes in Syria on a serious basis, it will be against exactly those forces that the “anti-imperialist” left claim are his proxies.
On August 8, 2013 I posted from two articles that anticipated to Marxmail what is happening now.
From the March 15, 2013 LA Times:
“The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.”
From the August 8, 2013 NY Times:
“As foreign fighters pour into Syria at an increasing clip, extremist groups are carving out pockets of territory that are becoming havens for Islamist militants, posing what United States and Western intelligence officials say may be developing into one of the biggest terrorist threats in the world today.”
All those comparisons with Reagan backing the Afghan jihadists turned to be complete and utter bullshit. Reagan not only put the red carpet down for them in the White House, he armed them with Stinger missiles. The “anti-imperialist” left embarrassed itself by even making such a comparison in the first place, but then again they are so cynical and so lacking in principle that it would hardly matter.
* * * *
From last night’s interview:
KROFT (voice-over): Syria is more challenging because the U.S. has few viable allies on the ground there. The regime of Bashar al- Assad is fighting ISIS, but the U.S. wants Assad deposed for committing horrific crimes against his own people, and other opposition groups like the Al-Nusra front and a terrorist cell called Khorasan, which was plotting attacks against Europe and the U.S., are both affiliated with Al Qaida. The coalition is hoping to train 5,000 moderate Syrian fighters in Saudi Arabia.
(on-screen): Is there a moderate Syrian opposition?
OBAMA: There is. But right now, it doesn’t control much territory. It has been squeezed between ISIL on the one hand and the Assad regime on the other.
KROFT: These are the people that you said — the farmers, the doctors, the pharmacists — who stood no chance of overthrowing the government.
OBAMA: Well, keep in mind, two years ago, that was absolutely true. This is in response to the mythology that’s evolved that somehow if we had given those folks some guns two-and-a-half years ago, that Syria would be fine.
And the point that I made then, which is absolutely true, is that for us to just start arming inexperienced fighters who we hadn’t vetted — so we didn’t know and couldn’t sort out very well who’s potentially ISIL or Al-Nusra member and who is somebody that we’re going to work with. For us to just go blind on that would have been counterproductive and would not have helped the situation, but also would have committed us to a much more significant role inside of Syria.
KROFT: You said that we need to get rid of Assad. And while we’re saying we have to get rid of Assad, we are also bombing and trying to take out some of the — his most threatening opponents and — and the…
OBAMA: I recognize the — I recognize…
KROFT: And the beneficiary of this is Assad.
OBAMA: I recognize the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance. We are — we are not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad, because the Sunni areas inside of Syria view Assad as having carried out terrible atrocities. The world has seen them.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Millions have been displaced. So for a long-term political settlement, for Syria to remain unified, it is not possible that Assad presides over that entire process. On the other hand, in terms of immediate threats to the United States, ISIL, Khorasan group, those folks could kill Americans. And so…
KROFT: They’re more important than Assad at this point. That’s what you’re saying.
OBAMA: What I’m saying is that they’re all connected, but there’s a more immediate concern that has to be dealt with.
September 11, 2014
When I checked my blog this morning, I saw a number of page views emanating from Asad AbuKhalil’s (aka the Angry Arab) blog, the man with a bad hairdo and worse politics.
This is now the second time he has referred to me as a “Trotskyite”, showing a grasp of my politics that can be compared to George W. Bush’s command of Marxist value theory. Frankly, I don’t mind being called a “Trotskyite”. I get called worse things 5 times a week by anonymous trolls.
But the real problem is trying to engage with this professor who at one time had a publicist capable of landing him guest spots on Bill Maher’s show. Now he has lapsed into the obscurity he well deserves.
In terms of believing that the “US is secretly backing Assad against FSA”, I have never said anything like that. (How would the Angry Arab know what I believe since there is zero evidence that he is familiar with my blog that regularly finds fault with the Trotskyist movement on one score or another.)
Instead I have said that Baathists and IS were attacking the FSA from different angles. The Angry Arab, like most of the “anti-imperialist” left has written 1000 articles (all as superficial as the one above) making an amalgam between the FSA and jihadism. Now that this analysis lies on the ground in a smoldering rubble, he is at a loss presumably to explain why he screwed up so royally. Maybe he would be better informed if he became one of my regular readers rather than relying on WSWS.org or Global Research for his talking points.
September 9, 2014
Statement of Steven Salaita September 9, 2014 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
My name is Steven Salaita. I am a professor with an accomplished scholarly record; I have been a fair and devoted teacher to hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students; I have been a valued and open-minded colleague to numerous faculty across disciplines and universities. My ideas and my identity are far more substantive and complex than the recent characterizations based on a selected handful of my Twitter posts.
I am here today at the University of Illinois to speak against my termination by the Administration from a tenured faculty position because of the University Administration’s objections to my speech that was critical of recent Israeli human rights violations. The Administration’s actions have caused me and my family great hardship. Even worse, the Administration’s actions threaten principles of free speech, academic freedom, and critical thought that should be the foundation of any university.
Since 2006, I have been a faculty member of the English Department at Virginia Tech, where I earned lifetime tenure. On the basis of my scholarship and teaching record, and after substantial vetting, in 2013 I was enthusiastically recruited to join the faculty in the American Indian Studies program of UIUC. In October 2013, I accepted an offer from the interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to join the University as a professor with lifetime tenure, which I accepted. The offer letter specifically referenced the University’s adherence to the 1940 Principles of Academic Freedom codified by the AAUP.
In preparation for my new position, I resigned my tenured position at Virginia Tech; my wife resigned her professional position at the University as well. We got rid of our Virginia home and took on considerable expense in preparation for our move here. Two weeks before my start date, and without any warning, I received a summary letter from University Chancellor Phyllis Wise informing me that my position was terminated, but with no explanation or opportunity to challenge her unilateral decision. As a result, my family has no income, no health insurance, and no home of our own. Our young son has been left without a preschool. I have lost the great achievement of a scholarly career – lifetime tenure, with its promised protections of academic freedom.
As hard as this situation is on me personally, the danger of the University’s decision has farther reaching implications. Universities are meant to be cauldrons of critical thinking; they are meant to foster creative inquiry and, when at their best, challenge political, economic, or social orthodoxy. “Tenure – a concept that is well over a hundred years old – is supposed to be an ironclad guarantee that University officials respect these ideals and do not succumb to financial pressure or political expediency by silencing controversial or unpopular views. I have devoted my entire life to challenging prevailing orthodoxies, critiquing architectures of power and violence in the US and abroad and surfacing narratives of people – including Palestinians and Native Americans – who are subject to occupation, marginalization, and violence.
The Chancellor and Board of Trustees are apparently displeased by messages I posted on my personal Twitter account that were critical of recent atrocities committed by the Israeli government, which the United Nations referred to as “criminal.” My Twitter messages are no doubt passionate and unfiltered; they reflect my deep dismay at the deaths of more than 2,000 innocent Palestinians, over 500 of them children.
In recent statements, Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees said that the University Administration found the tone of my tweets “uncivil” and raised questions about my ability to inhabit the University environment. This is a perilous standard that risks eviscerating the principle of academic freedom. My comments were not made in a classroom or on campus; they were made through my personal Twitter account. The University’s policing and judgment of those messages places any faculty member at risk of termination if University administrators deem the tone or content of his or her speech “uncivil” without regard to the forum or medium in which the speech is made. This is a highly subjective and sprawling standard that can be used to attack faculty who espouse unpopular or unconventional ideas.
Even more troubling are the documented revelations that the decision to terminate me is a result of pressure from wealthy donors – individuals who expressly dislike my political views. As the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups have been tracking, this is part of a nationwide, concerted effort by wealthy and well-organized groups to attack pro-Palestinian students and faculty and silence their speech. This risks creating a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment and to academic freedom. The ability of wealthy donors and the politically powerful to create exceptions to bedrock principles should be worrying to all scholars and teachers.
Finally, my scholarship and strong student evaluations over the course of many years, along with the University’s enthusiastic recruitment of me as a faculty member, thoroughly belie Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s only recently-stated concern about my civility and respectfulness. As my colleagues and students will attest, I am a passionate advocate for equality, a fair and open- minded instructor, and highly collegial. No legitimate evidence exists for any claims or insinuations to the contrary, which have severely damaged my reputation and my prospects for future employment.
During this challenging time, I am deeply grateful to the many hundreds of people and prominent organizations who have raised their voices in defense of the principles of academic freedom, including the nearly 18,000 individuals who have signed a petition demanding corrective action and the numerous faculty around the world who are boycotting the University until I am reinstated. The students and instructors gathered here have shown themselves to be exemplars of everything to which a university should aspire.
I am here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies program at UIUC. I reiterate the demand that the University recognize the importance of respecting the faculty’s hiring decision and reinstate me. It is my sincere hope that I can – as a member of this academic institution – engage with the entire University community in a constructive conversation about the substance of my viewpoints on Palestinian human rights and about the values of academic freedom. This is, as we say in my profession, a “teaching moment.” We must all strive together to make the most of it.
September 8, 2014
September 7, 2014
I have no trouble understanding why so much of the left supported Bashar al-Assad from the very beginning of the Syrian revolt that began in March of 2011. It was a no-brainer. On one side you had the Venezuelan and Cuban governments throwing their full support behind the Baathists and on the other side there was Samantha Power and John McCain calling for “regime change”.
The analysis went something like this. The CIA was behind the Syrian protests and no matter how many times the protesters said they were for human rights and democracy, there was always lurking behind the scenes Saudi and Qatari money and Wahhabi politics. Furthermore, the real target of the Syrian insurgency was not just the Baathist government. Once a beachhead was established, the next targets would be Hizbollah in Lebanon and Iran. Using “moderates” in the FSA and the more obvious jihadists like those affiliated with al-Qaeda, US foreign policy would achieve its ultimate goal—to weaken Soviet (sorry, I meant Russian) influence in the Middle East—the last barrier to NATO and American hegemony.
Now, as it turns out, none of this was true. In a sense, it was a “no brainer” but only understood that such an analysis did not require a brain but rather some nimble fingers that could navigate Global Research, WSWS.org et al on a daily basis. Despite the hysteria that arose last September about Obama’s plan to make war on Syria in order to achieve Samantha Power type “regime change”, the net result has been a coalescing of Syria, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and the USA against ISIS, arguably the only genuine jihadist group operating in the region. To try to explain or explain away ISIS does require a nimble brain and nimble fingers. Some on the “anti-imperialist” left continue to view ISIS as a CIA tool. For them there is no medication that is powerful enough to cure such delusions.
When I received email from Vijay Prashad announcing a series of articles on ISIS for the The Hindu, I was very curious to see what he had to say. I hadn’t been following Vijay all that closely since he had made some serious analytical mistakes, at least in my opinion (who else?). He had written a number of articles predicting a regional settlement of the war in Syria, the best hope for an intractable situation. No such luck, needless to say. Following him on Twitter, I was dismayed to see him give credit to the report that there had been a landslide victory for Bashar al-Assad in the last “election”. I don’t tend to pay much attention to tweets, but conveyed my displeasure to Vijay (I am sure he did not lose any sleep over this.)
After reading the first article (The Pendulum of the Islamic State), one cannot help but conclude that ISIS and the al-Nusra front are operating in concert against the Syrian army:
Intense fighting along the belt that links Mhardeh and Houla suggests that IS and its allies (including its fractious cousin, Jabhat al-Nusra) have the ability to threaten the western coastal towns of Tartous and Latakia. The Syrian Army was able to block an al-Nusra and IS advance toward the largely Christian town of Mhardeh. Tension remains high as morale in the IS soars.
I am not quite sure what the adjective “fractious” indicates. It is a synonym for grumpy, something that would describe me but in political terms—I have no idea. More to the point, isn’t it the case that al-Nusra is aligned with al-Qaeda that expelled ISIS? And isn’t the case that ISIS has drawn many of al-Nusra’s fighters if for no other reason that it has ample arms and money?
For those who stick with al-Nusra, a group that at least has the merit of having fought against the Baathists if nothing else, the costs are significant. When al-Qaeda leader Abu Khaled al-Suri came to Syria to make peace between ISIS and other rebels, he was killed by an ISIS suicide bomber in Aleppo. Something tells me that given such a background, the term “allies” does not apply to al-Nusra and ISIS. Since Vijay is based in the region, maybe he is privy to information we have no access to. Let’s hope he can shed some light.
Chugging along with this article, I was struck by Vijay’s assertion that the US was “egging on” the rebels’ Southern Front to seize Damascus. And what would be the leverage they need to accomplish such a task? Vijay observes: “The U.S. trains Syrian rebels in the deserts of eastern Jordan.” I don’t know what use any kind of training would be to foot soldiers facing an air force that can launch missiles filled with 400 pounds of TNT. Maybe the training involves reading some Maoist tracts about the importance of a fighting spirit. Who knows?
And finally there’s this. Vijay feels that as long as there is economic inequality, the threat of jihadism will arise. He writes:
Political reforms need to be on the cards. So too must an alternative to the economic agenda pursued in both Iraq and Syria since the mid-2000s. Under U.S. pressure, the Assad and al-Maliki governments pursued neo-liberal policies that increased inequality and despair.
Well, look, I don’t think that any kind of pressure had to be applied to Bashar al-Assad. That would be like breaking down an open door. The Baathists adopted neo-liberal policies for the same reason that Mubarak did. The Syrian bourgeoisie existed on the basis of the classic “crony capitalism” that made the poor suffer so that both the Sunni and non-Sunni elite in Damascus could continue to live high on the hog. They didn’t need any pressure from the USA to screw the plebian masses of the provincial capitals and the countryside. They did it all by themselves.
Moving right along to the next article, Metastasis of the Islamic State, I was struck by this explanation of how ISIS gained such battlefield prowess: “The Syrian war allowed the IS fighters great battlefield experience, and helped them draw in jihadis from around the world (including India, according to a July 23 report to the U.N. Security Council).” Battlefield experience? Really? With who? Surely not the Syrian army.
In fact ISIS’s main battles were with the FSA that had been battered for well over two years before ISIS emerged as a fighting force. If you had been the target of barrel bombs and 400 pounds of TNT missiles for that length of time and starved of weapons and other material aid, it is unlikely that you would be able to put up much of a fight especially when the Syrian army and ISIS were involved in a two-front pincer attack. If there were any significant battles between the Syrian army and ISIS until very recently, I don’t know of them. Maybe Vijay has information that would shed light on this question or maybe he was simply saying that ISIS became a formidable force operating against the FSA. I hope not.
Finally, there’s The geopolitics of the Islamic state. Since the whole question of geopolitics intrigues me, sort of the same way that an ingrown toenail does, I wondered where he would be going with this. After reading it, I am afraid that the wheels spun off the old Prashad wagon.
To start with, Vijay states that “ISIS entered the Syrian war in 2012 as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front).” Is that so? That would indicate one of two things, either that it split from al-Nusra Front or that al-Nusra transformed itself into ISIS, which is obviously not the case. The origins are a bit more complex. At one time the al-Nusra Front was receiving funding from ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) but on April 8, 2013 Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced that the only authorized fighting group (in a manner of speaking) would be ISIL. Al-Nusra was now persona non grata. Furthermore, getting funding from ISI does not indicate that it was a branch of ISI. I know that some of this can seem quite arcane but it really has to do with the need for clearer lines of demarcation, which are badly needed when writing about jihadists.
Vijay puts a lot of the blame for the viral outbreak of jihadism in Syria at Turkey’s doorstop:
The West’s backing of the rebellion provided cover for Turkey’s more enthusiastic approach to it. Intoxicated by the possibility of what Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutog˘lu favoured as “neo-Ottomanism,” the Turkish government called for the removal of Assad and the emergence of a pro-Istanbul government in Damascus.
As someone who has followed Turkish politics rather carefully over the years, I find this analysis dubious. I think that the more likely explanation is AKP sympathy for their co-religionists. For example, when Turkey backs flotillas to Gaza, is that an expression of “neo-Ottomanism”? The more likely explanation is that the Anatolian elites have much in common ideologically and in class terms with formations like the Muslim Brotherhood. It would most certainly want to see its member parties prevail in Gaza and Egypt but why drag the Ottoman Empire into the equation?
Showing that he has been keeping up with Seymour Hersh, Vijay writes: “Turkey opened its borders to the ‘rat-line’ of international jihad, with planeloads of fighters from Libya and Chechnya flying into Turkey to cross into Syria to fight for ISIS and its offshoots.” Wow, pretty exciting. This would make for a good episode on Showtime’s “Homeland” but I think it would work more as fiction than fact.
What source would Vijay recommend for verifying that “planeloads” of jihadists poured into Turkey en route to Syria other than the sad and discredited Seymour Hersh? Would it be the English-language version of Al Akhbar in Lebanon where Vijay reports from occasionally? A Turkish newspaper reported:
According to English edition of Lebanese al Akhbar newspaper, thousands of jihadists are coming from Jordan to Turkey by through the air. The terrorists who come to the Yayladağ region of Hatay province of Turkey are being transferred to the Latakia region of Syria. It’s reported that thousands of jihadists transferred to Turkey during the non-stop transportation operations for weeks.
Syrian sources speaking to Aydınlık confirmed the transportation of the terrorists through the mentioned routes. They also stated that according to their sources, there is a huge discomfort in the Turkish state regarding the related issue.
Wikipedia describes al-Akhbar as “pro-Hezbollah”. If that is the case, I would take its reporting with a grain of salt especially in light of what transpired with one of its most well-known reporters. Once again from Wikipedia:
[Max] Blumenthal left Al Akhbar in June 2012 in protest at Al Akhbar’s coverage of the Syrian civil war. In an interview with The Real News he said that “It was too much to have my name and reputation associated with open Assad apologists when the scale of atrocities had become so extreme and when the editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar was offering friendly advice to Bashar al-Assad on the website of Al-Akhbar, you know, painting him as this kind of genuine, earnest reformer who just needed to get rid of the bad men around him and cut out some of the rich oligarchs who happened to be his cousins, and then everything would be fine. That was ridiculous.”
I would only hope that Vijay Prashad take some inspiration from Max Blumenthal in future reporting from the region, especially since he too has written for Al Akhbar.
August 28, 2014
As we all witnessed yesterday Syria’s foreign minister Walid Muallem said thatSyria will offer to help the US fight the Islamic State (IS) militant group. This of course has left the so called Anti-war camp and “Anti-Imperialist” left in the U.S/West and even Arab assadists that support Assad either confused or silent on the matter. It’s important to note these are the same leftists or as some call them ‘tankies’ that support Russian imperialism and Iranian mini-imperialism in the Middle East and don’t even care whether Russia is a capitalist oligarchy or if Iran has communist political prisoners in its jails or killed because of their ideas this shows you how unprincipled they can be by becoming reactionary by supporting bourgeois nationalism and fascism. This article will focus on the many ways to break the regime’s “resistance” and “rejection of U.S/Western Imperialism” narrative and a way for critically think about Syria and the peoples mobilization against the regime.
August 26, 2014
Wall Street Journal, August 22 2014
Islamic State, or ISIS, Gained Momentum Early On From Calculated Decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Go Easy on It
By MARIA ABI-HABIB
The Islamic State, which metastasized from a group of militants seeking to overthrow the Syrian government into a marauding army gobbling up chunks of the Middle East, gained momentum early on from a calculated decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go easy on it, according to people close to the regime.
Earlier in the three-year-old Syrian uprising, Mr. Assad decided to mostly avoid fighting the Islamic State to enable it to cannibalize the more secular rebel group supported by the West, the Free Syrian Army, said Izzat Shahbandar, an Assad ally and former Iraqi lawmaker who was Baghdad’s liaison to Damascus. The goal, he said, was to force the world to choose between the regime and extremists.
“When the Syrian army is not fighting the Islamic State, this makes the group stronger,” said Mr. Shahbandar, a close aide to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said Mr. Assad described the strategy to him personally during a visit in May to Damascus. “And sometimes, the army gives them a safe path to allow the Islamic State to attack the FSA and seize their weapons.”
“It’s a strategy to eliminate the FSA and have the two main players face each other in Syria: Assad and the Islamic State,” said Mr. Shahbandar. “And now [Damascus] is asking the world to help, and the world can’t say no.”
The Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, has emerged recently as a major threat to the entire region and beyond. Its seizure of territory in neighboring Iraq triggered American airstrikes, and its execution this week of kidnapped American journalist James Foley prompted President Barack Obama to vow to continue the U.S. air war against the group in Iraq and to relentlessly pursue the killers. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the group can’t be defeated without choking off its operations in Syria.
This account of how the Islamic State benefited from the complex three-way civil war in Syria between the government, the largely secular, moderate rebels and the hard-core Islamist groups was pieced together from interviews with Syrian rebel commanders and opposition figures, Iraqi government officials and Western diplomats, as well as al Qaeda documents seized by the U.S. military in Iraq.
The Assad regime now appears to be shifting away from its early reluctance to engage the group.
In June, Syria launched airstrikes on the group’s headquarters in Raqqa in northern Syria, the first large-scale offensive against the militant group since it rose to power a year ago. This week, Syria flew more than three dozen sorties on Raqqa, its biggest assault on the group yet.
The Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, denied that Damascus supported the Islamic State early on and praised his government’s battlefield response to the group, pointing to dozens of recent strikes on the group’s headquarters.
“Our priorities changed as these groups emerged,” Mr. Ali said in an interview at his office. “Last month it was protecting Damascus, for example. Today it is Raqqa.”
Speaking of the Islamic State aggression that has decimated the more secular FSA, he said: “When these groups clashed, the Syrian government benefited. When you have so many enemies and they clash with each other, you must take advantage of it. You step back, see who is left and finish them off.”
Mr. Shahbandar said the Islamic State’s recent success forced the Syrian government and its Iranian allies to ramp up their military assaults, hoping the West will throw its weight behind Damascus and Tehran to defeat the extremists. Such cooperation would put the U.S. and its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia in an uncomfortable position, after years of supporting the FSA and demanding that Mr. Assad step down.
There are some signs that the opposing sides might be willing to work together. In Iraq, the U.S. began arming Kurdish Peshmerga forces this month, while the Iranians sent advisers.
The Syrian government facilitated the predecessor to the Islamic State — al Qaeda in Iraq — when that group’s primary target was U.S. troops then in the country.
In 2007, U.S. military forces raided an al Qaeda training camp in Sinjar, northern Iraq. They uncovered a trove of documents outlining Damascus’s support to the extremists, according to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which publicly released the records. The Sinjar records detailed the flow of extremists from across the Middle East to the Damascus airport.
Syrian intelligence agents detained the fighters as they landed in the capital, holding them at the Sadnaya military prison on the city’s outskirts. If deemed a threat to the country, they would remain imprisoned, the records indicate. But if their intentions were solely to fight U.S. troops in Iraq, Syrian intelligence would facilitate their flow across the border, the records show. Making that journey were many Saudis and Libyans — the same nationalities that today bolster the ranks of the Islamic State.
Mr. Maliki’s former spokesman, Ali Aldabbagh, said in an interview that he attended heated meetings in Damascus during which Baghdad asked Mr. Assad to stop the flow of al Qaeda militants across the border. He said Syria brushed off the requests.
“The Assad regime played a key role in ISIL’s rise,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf at a news conference earlier this month. “They allowed for a security situation where ISIL could grow in strength. The Syrian regime fostered the growth of terrorist networks. They facilitated the flow of al Qaeda foreign fighters in . . . Iraq.”
The Assad regime denies providing any support to the groups.
By the time the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, the militant group was nearly decimated. It regrouped in northeast Syria as the revolution was becoming a civil war. It was led by a charismatic figure from Samarra, Iraq, who goes by the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In May 2011, after the first protests broke out in Syria, the Syrian government released from the Sadnaya military prison some of its most high-value detainees imprisoned for terrorism, the first in a series of general amnesties. At least nine went on to lead extremist groups in Syria, and four currently serve the Islamic State, statements from the extremist groups and interviews with other rebels show.
Mr. Ali, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, said Damascus had released only common criminals in the amnesties, who were then offered money by extremist groups to fight against the government.
“When Syria released these people, they hadn’t committed terrorist crimes,” he said. “They were just criminals. In 2011, there were calls for freedom and accusations that Damascus was imprisoning people, so we hosted several amnesties [to demonstrate] our goodwill.”
Bassam Barabandi, a diplomat in Syria’s foreign ministry at the time who has since defected, offered a different explanation. “The fear of a continued, peaceful revolution is why these Islamists were released,” he said. “The reasoning behind the jihadists, for Assad and the regime, is that they are the alternative to the peaceful revolution. They are organized with the doctrine of jihad and the West is afraid of them.”
The U.S. has been reluctant to supply arms to the moderate rebels for fear that the weaponry would wind up in the hands of extremists.
By the start of 2012, radical groups were entrenched in the Syrian uprising, with al Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, the biggest player. Last year, Nusra split over an ideological and leadership struggle. Most of the group’s foreign fighters formed what was then known as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, since renamed Islamic State.
The split between Nusra and the Islamic State created a fissure among al Qaeda supporters. The Islamic State presented itself as truer to al Qaeda’s past, with its more radical social codes, and was more focused than its predecessor in creating a caliphate, or Islamic empire.
The Islamic State militants despised the FSA and its largely secular rebels, denouncing them as nonbelievers. By last summer, the Islamic State began grabbing territory the FSA had captured from the regime. In September, the Islamic State defeated the FSA’s Northern Storm Brigade in Azaz, a border outpost between Aleppo province and Turkey. The Islamic State quickly imposed its hard-line version of Islam, forbidding smoking, enforcing the segregation of the sexes and conservative dress.
The Islamic State continued to take territory and impose its social codes on more of Syria, growing more ruthless over time. In January, disparate rebel factions united to turn their guns on Islamic State fighters, while angry civilians simultaneously rose up against the group. The FSA drove the Islamic State from its strongholds across Syria.
Shifting alliances between various rebel groups made the situation murky.
In the northern city of Raqqa, Islamic State fighters were ensconced in three municipal buildings by mid-January, surrounded by rebels from the FSA and Islamic Front, a coalition of religious rebel groups. The Islamist militia Ahrar al-Sham, fighting alongside the FSA, posed the biggest threat, and Islamic State fighters appeared ready to surrender to that group.
“They got on the loudspeakers and said, ‘We are your Muslim brothers. Don’t kill us. Let us withdraw peacefully with our weapons,’” said Mohammed Abu Seif, an FSA rebel in Raqqa who was present at the standoff.
FSA fighters said their leaders wanted to continue the attack. They were prepared to kill the Islamic State militants, said Mr. Abu Seif and several other rebels involved in the fighting.
But Ahrar al-Sham wavered, they said, taking pity on their Muslim brethren. FSA fighters pressed on, hoping to wipe out the Islamic State and restore the secular roots of their revolution, according to Mr. Abu Seif and the other rebels.
But by the fourth day, Ahrar al-Sham started to withdraw from Raqqa. Rebels say a previously unreported deal was cut for Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State to swap territory. The Islamic State agreed to withdraw from Aleppo and Azaz, a border crossing with Turkey. In exchange, Ahrar al Sham would withdraw from Raqqa and Tal Abyad, another border town.
The FSA found themselves surrounded in the Raqqa suburbs by thousands of Islamic State fighters who were retreating from FSA advances elsewhere. On the eighth day, the FSA and its affiliates retreated, leaving Raqqa to the Islamic State.
By the spring, the Islamic State had used what amounted to a sanctuary in Raqqa to rejuvenate its ranks. With Raqqa as its base and headquarters, the militants went back on the offensive, storming across Syria, while its branch in Iraq did the same just across the border.
By June, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate and renamed ISIS the Islamic State, declaring nearly 12,000 square miles of contiguous territory across western Iraq and in Syria’s north and east — an area the size of Belgium — a newly formed Islamic caliphate. The group now threatens the borders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, where it briefly occupied a Lebanese border town this month.
Still, at times its actions appeared to help the Syrian government in its fight against the FSA. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, remained one of the few major strongholds of FSA resistance. Last month, the Islamic State quietly withdrew from the city’s northeastern suburbs, clearing the way for Syrian government forces to stream in. Not a shot was fired. The gains enabled government forces to flank FSA rebels from three sides in Aleppo.
As FSA fighters struggle to hold off the regime, they also are fighting Islamic State militants in the countryside just north of Aleppo. Only 4 miles remain to fully encircle and besiege Aleppo. If FSA rebels lose the battle, it could spell the end of their revolution, rebels say.
Today, at a time when the FSA’s ranks are thinning, new recruits from the Middle East and beyond are flocking to the Islamic State, crossing the Turkish border to settle themselves and sometimes their families in Raqqa. The group’s fighters and core members are largely Syrians and Iraqis, but recruits are arriving from as far away as Europe and the U.S., say American intelligence officials. The U.K. chief of police in charge of counterterrorism estimated in June that 500 Britons alone have joined the group, although a member of British Parliament has said the number could be as high as 1,500.
At a recent U.S. intelligence briefing, American officials estimated the Islamic State’s size to be about 10,000 before it took over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June. European diplomats say the number may be as high as 20,000.
In June, after the Islamic State took over most of western Iraq and eastern Syria, controlling much of the border between the two countries, the Syrian regime began shifting its approach, striking Raqqa from the air. Since then, the Islamic State’s appetite to attack the regime has grown, and it has assaulted government forces across Syria.
Iraqi officials say the strike on Raqqa may have been prompted by Baghdad’s anger toward Damascus for allowing the Islamic State to rise to prominence in Syria, emboldening its Iraq branch.
Syrian civilians living in Raqqa and rebels said that unless the U.S. is willing to expand its military strikes against the Islamic State to include Syria, the group will continue to grow.