French journalist Nicolas Hénin has reported from the Middle East for more than a decade and was captured by the Islamic State and spent 10 months in captivity. Having witnessed the events that led to the rise of the Islamic State and its activities in the recent past, Hénin is of the belief that Bashar al-Assad’s regime isn’t opposing the Islamic State. In his book Jihad Academy, Hénin explains how the regime is using the Islamic State to wipe out moderates in Syria.
One of the organisers of this ‘jihad highway’ [between Aleppo, Syria and Baghdad, Iraq] was Sheikh Mahmoud Abu al-Qaqa, a young imam from Aleppo known for his inflammatory sermons inciting people to take up arms against the American invader. … The sheikh also called for an Islamic regime under Sharia law in Syria. Observers of politics in Aleppo followed the sheikh’s development closely. He quite openly put up mujahidin in his own home before they left for Iraq. This provoked no reaction from the authorities, though Syrian intelligence agencies are usually very quick to identify and punish anything they consider irregular.
The reason for this tolerance became clear only later: some of Abu al-Qaqa’s young recruits never reached Iraq. Certainly none made it back alive. The imam was in fact what intelligence services call a ‘honey pot’, a lure to help identify candidates for jihad. They would leave for Iraq as marked men. Some would cross over; some probably died before they even set off. What mattered was that they were eliminated and never returned. … Abul al-Qaqa’s mission was to identify potential jihadists, try to confirm their violent tendencies and then pass on their names to the authorities. The regime was killing two birds with one stone: it was getting rid of potentially violent youths to prevent them from taking action in Syria, and also using them as tools in a policy of destabilisation in Iraq. The same kind of reasoning – which is not only immoral but also ineffective from a security viewpoint – can also be found in France, where some people are happy to see young Frenchmen go off to jihad.
…In January 2014, Nawaf al-Fares, a former chief in Military Intelligence (Amn al-Askari), one of the many Syrian intelligence services, gave a sensational interview… he revealed that ‘the regime [of Bashar al-Assad] did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out; it facilitated them in their work, by helping them set up armed units.’ … Major General Fayez Dwairi, the Jordanian army officer in charge of fighting the spread of jihadi ideology in his country, has confirmed this: ‘Many of the people who created Jabhat al-Nusra were captured by the regime in 2008 and had remained in prison. When the revolution began, they were released on the order of Syrian intelligence officers who told Assad, “They’ll do good work for us. There are of course many drawbacks to letting them go, but there are even more advantages, because they’ll convince the world that we are fighting Islamic terrorism.”’ …
The political benefit for Damascus is obvious. It helps water down the narrative generally accepted by the Western media. Syria’s revolution is no longer legitimate, it is a war against terror and a fanatical, sectarian enemy within that has now found legitimacy. In the worst-case scenario, if Syria comes to the brink of collapse, it will always be possible to sell the world ‘the theory of the lesser evil’, which represents the regime as less of a threat than Islamic State. The Assad family has always manipulated the ‘me or chaos’ slogan very persuasively. The jihadist bogeyman is shockingly effective.
This is why the regime will never strike the jihadists directly, but instead concentrate its military operations on those it sees as presenting the greatest danger, the moderates who legitimately claim to represent a political alternative. The Free Syrian Army battalions and the democratic Islamist brigades…have been caught in the crossfire between the regime and the Islamic State.
For the regime, this was the second advantage of Islamic State encroaching on, and then seizing, parts of Syria from the summer of 2014 onwards. Wherever Islamic State fighters advanced, they drove back moderate groups, forcing them from their hard-won territories. Islamic State is like a cuckoo, plundering the nest the revolutionaries fought so hard for. … As a result, Islamic State has rarely launched frontal attacks on the regime. To nip counter-arguments in the bud, let me list the exceptions. Islamic State fought the Syrian army when they seized the Menagh air base and when they captured Division 17 in Raqqa along with the neighbouring military airport. It also took part in relatively small-scale battles in Qalamoun in the Aleppo region, Lattakia and Al-Qamishli. That is the complete list.
…The survival of Islamic State, which Assad has helped create, allows him to lump together this movement with secular demonstrators and regime opponents in order to blanket the entire dissident population of Syria with ruthless repression.
Excerpted with permission from Jihad Academy: The Rise of the Islamic State, by Nicolas Hénin (Bloomsbury, Rs 399).