The deadly symbiosis between ISIS and Assad

This was first published on Medium in the wake of the attack on Paris.

The bomb attacks in Paris were sickening, outrageous, and horrifying. And one of the most sickening moments came when Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, decided to blame the deaths on French foreign policy. What Parisians were confronting, he said, was exactly what Syrians had faced the past five years. If only France had only helped him against the Islamists, rather than keeping its distance!

Obviously, the bulk of the blame for this week’s tragedy lies squarely on ISIS, and its doctrine of terror and atrocity. But the single individual most directly responsible for its rise, and its enduring strength, is Bashar al-Assad.

Not just because, by plunging Syria into civil war, he created the preconditions for it to flourish. But because he has done everything in his power to strengthen its hand. The truth is that Assad and ISIS are not enemies: they are allies.

To understand what I mean, we have to go back to 2012/13, when the rebels — led by the Free Syrian Army — were at the gates of Damascus. In order to save himself, Assad did two things.

First, he accepted what was essentially an Iranian takeover of the campaign: as Dexter Filkins recounted in the New Yorker, Qassem Suleimani — the head of Tehran’s Quds Force — flew into Damascus to assume personal control, flooding the conflict with Iranian money, Iranian arms and fighters drawn both from Tehran and its Lebanese client, Hezbollah.

But the other prong of Assad’s strategy was more insidious. Since the start of the war, he had labelled his enemies as Islamist terrorists. And over the years, he did everything in his power to make that a reality.

Hardened jihadists were released from Sednaya, the regime’s mega-prison, and replaced with bloggers and human rights activists. The regime’s bombs and guns were aimed squarely at the moderates, while the Islamist radicals (many of whom had won their spurs in the insurgency against the US in Iraq) were given a free hand in the north. It was even alleged that they received air support from Assad during their march to Aleppo.

That, however, was only the start of it. ISIS had captured oilfields — but it had no market for the oil. Enter President Assad. He not only bought the rebels’ oil, but ensured they could buy food, and even get their mobile phone towers repaired. And his friends in ISIS returned the favour, marching not on Damascus, but Baghdad. Cue panic in the West, and the launch of airstrikes — against ISIS, not Assad.

Why did Assad do this? Simple: to persuade both his own people and foreign powers that he was the only alternative to the fanatics. His strategy has always been, as David Blair (one of the wisest British voices on foreign policy) wrote in the Telegraph last year, to act as arsonist, then fireman.

Assad now claims to be the only one able to contain ISIS. But the truth is that he has done almost nothing to contain it. Even now, his Russian allies are bombing not the militants, as they claim, but the few beleaguered moderates who remain.

The result is a grisly symbiosis. Assad bombs and maims and murders, driving people into the arms of the extremists. Then he can point to the growth of the Islamic State and say, as he has over Paris: “Look at these barbarous fanatics. How can I be more of a threat than them?”

But as the above shows, Assad is not the lesser of two evils here. He is the greater of them. Since 2011, says Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “the Assad regime has been the main source of death and destruction in Syria”. Even now, he is not just killing more of his own citizens than Islamic State, but many, many times more.

So no, the deaths in Paris aren’t the result of French government policy. They’re the result of Assad’s deliberate action: of taking a nasty little cancer cell called ISIS and giving it all the nutrients it needed to grow into something vast and malignant.

Since 2011, in fact, everything that has made this war worse can be traced back to the Syrian dictator, and nothing that has made it better.

The use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs against his own citizens? That’s on Assad.

The death of thousands of people and the displacement of millions more? That’s on Assad.

The destruction of Palmyra (perhaps the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to), and of much of the rest of Syria’s heritage and culture? That’s on Assad.

And the deaths in Paris, and on that Russian airliner, and in Beirut? They’re on Assad, too.

Yes, ISIS is the greater immediate threat to the West. And yes, there are practically no good options for ending this horrible, brutal conflict.

But any scenario in which we team up with Assad to fight the Islamists — any scenario, in fact, which leaves him in power rather than in prison — would be disgustingly immoral. Not just because it would encourage dictators everywhere to engage in a repeat performance, but because it would represent a victory for his diplomatic strategy of calculated barbarity.

The dead of Paris deserve more.