“At the first stage of the crisis we were gathering information and laying a map to know the whereabouts of the armed groups,” Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said. Speaking before a group of Syrian university students, the long-time leader was confident about the ability of his government to root out and destroy the terrorists threatening his country. “After the month of Ramadan, we started qualitative operations,” he said. “We directed severe and decisive blows to the terrorists. There will be no tolerance with them… we will follow them everywhere.”
That was in 2011.
Since then, Syria has waxed and waned in the international spotlight as the regime has struggled to remain in power amid the changes that swept the Middle East three years ago. At the time Assad was speaking to college students about the threats faced the country faced, the rest of the world was convinced that the true target of the government’s crackdown were the unarmed protesters that had taken to the streets to demand democracy. In the years between now and then, terrorists actually have emerged within Syria’s borders, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), conquering territory and serving as a useful specter for Assad to stand firmly against.
Now, as the United States now begins to marshal regional forces to counter ISIS’ gains in Iraq, the Syrian government stands to gain from the playbook it had been perfecting for the better part of a decade, presenting itself as a bulwark against the hardline Islamists it helped to create and until recently allowed to grow unchecked within its borders.
“Syria became the passageway for extremists”
As NBC’s Richard Engel recently documented, the Assad regime had seen the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and concluded that it needed to act to prevent the U.S. from being able to do the same across the border. The solution: allow open access from Syria into Iraq for the thousands of foreigners eager to help repel the Americans from Baghdad. “The Syrian border town of Qa’im was the main gateway Islamic radicals used to go to Iraq,” Engel wrote. “Syria became the passageway for extremists from Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations to fight a jihad against American forces in Iraq.”
Some of those fighters would go on to join Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), established in the aftermath of Saddam’s fall and the future ISIS. In a preview of the attacks that would later gain international attention for ISIS, AQI in 2007 took credit for bomb blasts against the Yazidi religious minority that killed at least 344 and injured 400 others. At its peak, per data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s Global Terrorism Database, the group was responsible for the deaths of at least 700 people in 2007 alone and the wounding of thousands more.
It was only after the so-called Anbar Awakening helped lead to the decimation of AQI and the American war began to wind down that the Syrian government turned against the jihadis, eager to win the support of a new president. The Washington Post in late 2007 quoted General David Petraeus as saying that border crossings from Syria had fallen to “half or two-thirds” of the 80 to 90 average per month. “You have to understand, the Syrian government was one of our best friends,” a U.S. military source said to Engel about the cooperation seen in the years between 2008 and 2011. “They were incredibly cooperative. The Syrians were picking up people for us.”
All of that would change with the advent of the Arab Spring.
“We said it from the beginning, this is terrorism”
“The armed groups that terrify the Syrian citizens are divided into three groups: part of them belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, another part belong to the Takfiri Wahabi, and the third are those who have sentences to death or life imprisonment and who don’t hesitate to commit such acts,” Assad explained to the college students he addressed back in November 2011. At that point, protests had been raging on the streets of Damascus for eight months, hoping to spread the spirit of the Arab Spring, as it was called, into Syria. Already Tunisia and Egypt had cast off their despots, Syrians reasoned in March, why not here?
The response came quickly. In the protesters accumulating in the streets, Assad saw a threat to his rule. The glowing reviews and hopeful statements about Assad’s rehabilitation soon turned to comparisons with Assad’s father — Hafez al-Assad — who in 1982 ordered a massacre in the Hama to put down a reformist movement. In first matching, then exceeding, his father’s brutality, Assad also set the scene for the rise of the very terrorists he would later argue were the very reason he should remain in power.
By June, the military was touting its operations in the city of Jisr Al-Shugur “to restore security and tranquility to the area which was being terrorized by armed terrorist groups.” Assad likewise praised the Syrian people as patriotic, applauding their support of his government’s fight against the terrorists and foreign agitators who sought to cause “massacres against innocent civilians and security forces.”
By the time Assad was speaking to college students in the fall, the United Nations had already begun to document the crimes the regime had undertaken in order to quash the protests. “Our commanding officer told us that there were armed conspirators and terrorists attacking civilians and burning Government buildings,” one defector told the U.N. investigators. “We went into Telbisa on that day. We did not see any armed group. The protesters called for freedom. They carried olive branches and marched with their children. We were ordered to either disperse the crowd or eliminate everybody, including children.”
Throughout this campaign of oppression, Assad argued that his government was actually protecting people from the foreigners invading his country. “There was policy of facing the terrorists when you have militants; you have to face the militants,” he told ABC’s Barbara Walters in early Dec. 2011, drawing comparisons to the United States’ actions in the face of protests. “You don’t allow in the United States to have militants, and remember what happened in Los Angeles in the ’90s, when you send the army to the city, to face the terrorists. That the same.”
Though most of the world agreed that Assad’s security forces were behind the violence, Syria wasn’t entirely without supporters. “Those who are chanting anti-government slogans are very diverse people,” Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said in September 2011. “Some are clearly extremists, some could even be described as terrorists.” Russia would go on to veto multiple resolutions in the U.N. Security Council condemning Assad’s use of force, frequently urging a balance between blaming the regime and the “terrorist groups” on the ground, a position the United States and others routinely bashed.
Then the explosions started. Just days after the Syrian National Assembly passed a law imposing the death sentence on terrorists, an explosion in Damascus killed 44 people and wounded dozens more, seemingly giving support for Assad’s thesis. “We said it from the beginning, this is terrorism,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters amid the bodies still littering the ground after the explosion, blaming a branch of al-Qaeda for the attack. “They are killing the army and civilians.”
It’s still not clear whether or not terrorists were actually behind the bombing. But back then al Qaeda in Iraq was still attempting to pull itself back together following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. According to data from Global Terrorism Database, in 2011 the group only conducted no more than 30 attacks, many of which it never claimed credit for. The growing chaos across the border provided ample opportunity for its members to take advantage of the safe haven Syria provided, to gain combat experience against the moderate opposition that had begun to take up arms against Assad, and to recruit.
And recruit they did: new estimates from the CIA show that the group has as many as 30,000 fighters, compared to the roughly 800 to 1,000 members it had in December 2011. Though the Syrian government has decried jihadis as the cause of the ongoing bloodshed, it has been extremely reticent to actually do anything about them. As late as June, analysts concluded that a de facto truce was in place between ISIS and Damascus even as civilians continued to pay the price. “ISIS has largely refrained from fighting the Syrian regime to focus on building an Islamic state in northern Syria and ousting more moderate rebel rivals,” the Christian Science Monitor reported. “In return, the regime has left ISIS alone, allowing the Syrian military to concentrate on fighting the moderate rebel groups.”
“It takes two to tango…We are ready to talk.”
All the while, Assad has continued to promote the fight against jihadis and terrorists, many of whom came from the prisons that he emptied earlier in the conflict, as the reason the fighting was still ongoing. Now that ISIS has proved to be outside of Syria’s ability to manage — taking territory in Iraq and Syria both, openly challenging Iran, and drawing the interest of the United States — the regime is rethinking its strategy. “ISIL was useful to the [Assad] regime and [Assad’s ally] Iran for the pressure it put on the Syrian opposition,” Frederic Hof, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said, using the alternate acronym for ISIS. “But given what’s happened in Iraq, ISIL’s shelf life in Syria has expired.”
Despite that, more than three years after the start of the civil war, the Syrian government is still using the same line of argument to bolster its case that it’s the only way to provide stability in the Middle East. “When it comes to terrorism, we should forget our differences… and forget all about the past,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mekdad said in an interview last week of his country’s desire to coordinate with the U.S. against ISIS. “It takes two to tango…We are ready to talk.” As an example of that commitment, last week Syrian warplanes struck out against the ISIS-held city of Raqqa, often referred to as its base of operations. That operation, however, killed at least 25 people, “most of them civilians crowding into a bakery.”
Still, the Assad regime is already beginning to praise itself on a strategy well executed. Advisers close to Assad now believe “the American decision represents a victory for his longstanding strategy: obliterating any moderate opposition to his rule and persuading the world it faces a stark choice between him and Islamist militants who threaten the West,” the New York Times said, adding Obama’s decision “has reinvigorated core members of Mr. Assad’s inner circle who believe that he faces less and less pressure to compromise, and that the West will eventually ally with him against ISIS.”
But there also potential pitfalls to this line of thinking. Already Syria has written off the eastern part of the country that ISIS controls, but it’s unclear just what would come from U.S. airstrikes on the territory as “Syrian officials are unsure who would benefit militarily — government forces, or Syrian insurgents and separatist Kurds, who have also clashed with the foreign-led ISIS militants.” The U.S. for its part believes “the forces that are most likely to benefit are other opposition elements, particularly the legitimate Syrian opposition who we work with.” No matter which assessment turns out to be true, the fact remains that in ISIS the Assad regime has executed as self-fulfilling prophecy, acting to provide the very instability it claims it has been standing firmly against.