A reading list on the history of the regime and DA’AESH (ISIS)’s relationship

This commented reference list (listicle) has grown gradually and is now very long, so I’ve tried to organise it with some sub-headings, as below:

CONTENTS
Summary 
Origins
Sectarianisation as a strategy
Regime infiltration and direction of Da’aesh 
Comic interval with a serious point
Oil sales
Russian and Iranian regimes’ involvement
Regime weapons supplies to and military cooperation with Da’aesh 
Captured documentary records of instigation
Captured financial accounts 
Claims about international support, real and fake
Moral effects of false narratives about the regime and Da’aesh’s relationship

Summary: the Assad regime actually enabled and cooperated with Al Qaeda in Iraq until 2009. In 2011 the regime instigated ISIS in Syria to be their ideal enemy to use in propaganda to enable them to crush the Syrian revolution. The regime then falsely accuses all their international enemies of doing what they actually did and continue doing in order to make it sound incredible to accuse them of it truthfully. That is a mirror accusation propaganda tactic.

The regime often calls all opposition armed groups and civilians in opposition areas “ISIS” or “Al Qaeda” — but this is just propaganda for its international audiences. For example, in E Aleppo by the time of the forced displacement in mid December 2016, there were only about 150–200 Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly an Al Qaeda franchise) fighters in E Aleppo, up to 5000 other fighters, with at least 60,000 civilians, but in regime propaganda they were all “ISIS” — there were no ISIS / Daesh in Aleppo since the FSA and YPG kicked them out in 2014. For a survey of armed factions in Syria, see Bellingcat:

The evidence listed below is long and complicated, but the gist is simple:

The regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have a huge network of covert disinformation sites, paid trolls and useful idiots spreading their propaganda online. They also manipulate Google search ranking results so that their sites look more popular and credible. Their covertly connected sites make it appear as though their lies are widely and independently corroborated. Evidence about this could fill another article this long, so for now just one recent sample:

To see for yourself how some covertly connected media sites/ Pages and personalities are actually connected, you might like to start with my OSINT DIY Open Source media network analysis guide for beginners.

Origins

(The ‘a’ in Daesh is an ع ‘ayn, which is sometimes transliterated a’a or 3a to distinguish it from ا alif, which is like our ‘a’.)

Statement from General Ahmed Tlass was a senior police chief with 20 years experience in the Syrian regime before he defected, and the circumstances and reasons why he defected to join the revolution —

Sectarianisation as a strategy

It means ‘support’ in the way of cooptation and instrumentalisation — most Da’aesh recruits would not be aware that they are being used in this way.

In Spring 2011 when the major protests started, the regime did not have enough supporters or allies to win the war they had just started against peaceful civilian protesters, so they created and inflamed sectarian hatreds to divide communities and then use some to fight the others — starting with faking al-Nusra bombings against Christian neighbourhoods. In the beginning, there were Arab and Kurdish, Sunni and Shia, Druze, Alawi and Christian, etc., all joining protests together — Syrian style protests are mainly dancing dabke and group chanting revolutionary slogans in between someone singing verses, and going to support protests in each other’s neighbourhoods. Funerals would often turn into protests later, and as the regime shot protesters at protests, there was an exponential loop — more funerals, more protests, more funerals, etc. There still are Druze, Alawi and Christians on the opposition side, but far fewer now, as they were more likely to need to flee earlier. The Druze have mostly stayed neutral (exceptions: e.g. the Druze Elders council declared Issam Zahreddine, a Druze, to be an apostate), while the Alawi sided with the Assad family — who are Alawi, and Christians, especially those who are less educated and independent minded, increasingly followed the Orthodox and Catholic hierarchies, who are of course Assad supporters — if they weren’t they wouldn’t be allowed to be in those positions.

Sectarianization is a form of divide and rule strategy.

Jabhat al-Nusra, which has gone through many group fission-fusion events and name changes, their current coalition name with several other extremist Islamist armed groups is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is not the same as ISIS/ Da’aesh — they do not fight together, they sometimes fight each other, HTS is not as extremely nasty as Da’aesh, by quite a long way.

A small example from direct personal accounts I’ve heard while helping refugees to prepare for their interviews — a refugee friend in the course of his interview preparation told me that he saw Da’aesh force a young child to shoot his own father dead for the ‘crime’ of smoking, which is haram (forbidden by God), whereas another close friend who encountered two Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in the street while he was smoking, he just got lectured about how it’s bad for his health, a waste of money, and also haram, and then they left him alone. We have a running joke now that I tell him ‘Me, your mum and al-Nusra all agree you should quit smoking’.

HTS (including al-Nusra) do some horrible stuff too — they probably were responsible for bombing the Fua’a and Kefraya civilian evacuation buses (although regime infiltration and influence in that is not unlikely too), and they still have in detention two friends of friends, who are civilian opposition journalists and political activists, for 4 going on 5 months now (February 2018), for photographing them selling Syrian antiquities on the black market to raise cash. HTS are nasty, but they’re in a range of nasty which Syrians can deal with, partly by negotiation and partly by force if necessary, gradually, by themselves, as they did before e.g. in Kafranbel recently (January 2018)— civilians took down all HTS flags and had a protest telling them to leave.

HTS have publicly announced that they’re not interested in international politics, only liberating Syria (hayat= coalition, tahrir = liberation, sham = Syria), and whether they’re all sincere in that or not, they don’t have the capacity to act otherwise now. They also formally broke with international al-Qaeda — how real and durable that break is is debatable, but pragmatically they’re not in a position to act otherwise anyway now.

The point of this introduction is — the regime talk about al-Nusra and ISIS to international audiences as if they’re interchangeable or allies with each other or equivalent — they’re not, but ISIS/ Da’aesh did develop out of Jabhat al-Nusra, with some regime instigation, as evidenced in the following articles:

Assad Henchman: Here’s How We Built ISIS, Roy Gutman, 1 December 16.

How Assad Staged al Qaeda Bombings, Roy Gutman, 2 December 2016.

How ISIS Returned to Syria, Roy Gutman, 5 December 2016.

p.s. added later:

The regime allowed Da’esh to capture Air to Ground Missile (ATGM) systems from their arms stores —

Regime infiltration and direction of Da’aesh

[Added 25 April 2018:]

Mufti Hassoun representing the regime in October 2011:

Khaled Aboud, a regime official, in January 2017, explicitly threatened Turkey, saying that they have infiltrated Da’esh leadership and can, and implied maybe they have, direct(ed) attacks in Turkey:

It’s common for pro-revolutionary Syrian civilians who are in positions to know more than just what’s in the media to believe that it is probable, or they claim to know but aren’t yet in a safe place to publish their evidence, that the regime directs, or knows in advance and chooses to do nothing to stop, some Da’esh attacks in Europe, because everytime Da’esh attacks in Europe it reinforces European support or tolerance for the regime.

Comic interval with a serious point

We’ve been reviewing evidence about the history of the most extremely violent group on the planet. Partly to avoid you tuning out, but also indirectly relevant later, here’s a funny example of some “pro-regime” Syrians attitude to the regime’s official propaganda, even while they’re actually repeating it:

“Everything is normal here in Damascus, no battles as those liars say. Everything is normal. The media are lying. Everything is normal, look at all these cars [looks around, no cars].” Asks bystander: “Yes, everything is normal, no battles [boom], everything is normal and under control here [boom].”

The relevant point, besides a bit of funny light relief, is that “pro-regime” Syrians actually don’t take the regime’s propaganda as literally as its Western supporters do. There is a signal in the propaganda content above — the regime is scared about the rockets getting unusually close to the palace and confirms to its supporters (both willing and coerced) that the rockets have not hit the President yet, but the surface content is not literally true. In general, propaganda ought to be taken seriously but not literally.

Oil sales

Arguments invoking oil or gas pipelines have become a political fetish for some, you can justify almost any argument in some circles with an allusion to oil, but the unpopular fact is the regime trades for oil with Da’aesh:

“New letters obtained by Sky News, in addition to the massive haul of 22,000 files handed over last month, appear to confirm this:

  • An agreement with the Syrian regime to withdraw IS weapons from Palmyra.
  • A deal between IS and the regime to trade oil for fertiliser and;
  • Arrangements to evacuate some areas by Islamic State forces BEFORE the Syrian army attacked.

All appear to be pre-agreed deals and suggest direct evidence of collusion between the Syrian regime and Islamic State chiefs.”

“In March 2015 the FT reported that a Syrian businessman […] George Haswani, [was] a middleman buying oil from ISIL [ISIS] on behalf of the regime.”

In Dec 2016, LCC reported that Hosam Ahmad Al-Qaterji is the regime’s middleman for buying oil from Daesh in Deir ez-Zor-

“Two officials from the regime attended a meeting with ISIS– Talal Ali and Colonel Ahmed Abdel Wahhab, who is serving as head of military intelligence in Qamishli. The meeting was arranged after Ali Mamlouk, head of the Assad National Security Bureau, tasked his representatives with convincing ISIS to increase attacks on the opposition. Following the meeting, ISIS captured Palmyra without facing any serious struggle from regime forces.”

Russian and Iranian regimes’ involvement

Syrian opposition civilians commonly believe that the Iranian and Russian regimes are actively involved in Assad’s deals and infiltration and influence strategies with Da’aesh. This is naturally hard to prove, but is consistent enough with their previous patterns that it can’t be dismissed as unlikely.

“Western appeasement of the clerical fascist regime in Iran has contributed directly to the Syrian nightmare and to the creation of ISIS. The Iranian regime’s outright support for Bashar al-Assad and his bloody reprisals against innocent civilians paved the way for the rise of ISIS. Iran’s puppet regime in neighboring Iraq, under the genocidal control of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, opened the door for ISIS to seize great swathes of Iraqi territory. As a result, Europe now faces its biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, as the civil conflict in Syria spirals out of control.”

The next one is not about Syria directly but to show that the modus operandi is not inconsistent with what the Russian regime has done before elsewhere —

“On December 6, 2015, in a televised interview with the Ukrainian news program ТСН Тиждень (TSN Tyzhden, Ukrainian for TSN Weekly), a former FSB officer admitted that Russia is behind ISIS while ostensibly opposing it.
Former FSB officer codenamed “Yevgeniy” (shown, back toward camera) revealed that Russia’s FSB security services was, at the very least, complicit in the Paris attacks carried out by ISIS, and most shockingly that the FSB was involved in the creation of ISIS, which it influences through its agents who staff it as well as other related Islamic terrorist organizations. […]
Tsaplienko asked, “Is there any proof which suggests that the Russian special services were involved in the terrorist attacks on Paris, or at least they knew about them in advance?”
“there was no way that Russia could not have known of the attacks in advance considering the FSB’s active presence within the Muslim communities throughout Europe. The high probability that Russia knew of the attacks in advance but yet did not warn proper European and French authorities, Yevgeniy suggests, is indicative that Russia wanted the Paris terrorist attacks to occur or at the very least was okay with them happening.[…]
Regarding ISIS, Tsaplienko asked, “Can one claim that Russia, the Russian special services are involved in the creation of ISIS?”
“Definitely, and I know that exactly, the Russian special services believed that if a terrorist organization was set up as an alternative to Al-Qaeda and it created problems for the United States as [the heavily ethnic-Russian populated region of Ukraine known as the] Donbas does for Ukraine now, it would be quite good,” Yevgeniy said.[…]
Given Russia and the FSB’s past history regarding international terrorism, supposed “Chechen” terrorism, and the revelations by the late-FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was trained at an FSB base in Dagestan in 1998, Yevgeniy’s revelations of a Russian FSB role in both ISIS in particular and “Muslim” terrorism in general should be taken seriously and not simply dismissed.”

Litvinenko was the guy poisoned with polonium in London in 2006 —

Ukrainian media obviously have grudges against the Russian regime, but also they have specific fact claims which are coherent enough to be credible and specific enough to be investigatable and potentially verifiable.

Russian regime infiltration and direction of extremist and terrorist political groups as proxies to attack strategic targets in enemy countries (us) with plausible deniability is not unusual, when you start to investigate how many.

Syrian opposition civilian contacts have discussed with me privately when there are ‘ISIS’ terrorist attacks in Europe that they believe the timing consistently corresponds with when the regime coalition needs to renew international public and hence governmental acquiescence for its “counter-terrorism”, i.e. mass murdering the Syrian civilian political opposition. They believe that Fares Shebadi, Khaled Aboud and Mufti Hassoun’s threats are not just threats but have already been enacted before, but Western governments choose not to publicly acknowledge the connections, because it would require them to then react accordingly, i.e., against the Russian and Iranian regimes.

Not directly related but as circumstantial evidence confirming that Western governments do indeed avoid publicly acknowledging realities which they are not prepared to face and respond adequately to —

Regime weapons supplies to and military cooperation with Daesh

“There have been dozens of cases since 2014 in which Assad’s troops and IS have apparently been coordinating attacks on rebel groups, with the air force bombing them from above and IS firing at them from the ground. In early June, the US State Department announced that the regime wasn’t just avoiding IS positions, but was actively reinforcing them.
Such cooperation isn’t surprising. The rebels — in all their variety, from nationalists to radical Islamists — represent the greatest danger to both Assad and IS. And if the two sides want to survive in the long term, the Syrian dictator and the jihadists are useful to each other. From Assad’s perspective, if the rebels were to be vanquished, the world would no longer see an alternative to the Syrian dictator. But the rebels are also primarily Sunni, as are two-thirds of the Syrian populace — meaning that, from the IS perspective, once the rebels were defeated, the populace would be faced either with submission and exile, or they would join IS.
In short, a Syria free of rebels would put both Assad and Islamic State in powerful positions, though not powerful enough to defeat the other. Still, such a situation would be vastly preferable to the alternatives: Being toppled from power (Assad), or being destroyed (IS).
Relative to those two camps, the Syrian opposition in the West is hardly being paid attention to anymore. That is in part a function of their confusing structure: There are dozens of larger rebel groups and hundreds of smaller units, mostly at a local level. They cooperate, but alliances often crumble due to the ideological differences of their foreign supporters.”

Added, 10 October 2017:

10 December 2017:

Regime ground and air forces effectively supporting Da’aesh attacks against the FSA or HTS and not fighting against Da’aesh is not unusual, but how blatantly they’re fighting alongside together against HTS now is unusual.

Omar Sabbour has an article in preparation compiling more evidence about it.

“During a successful offensive on Palmyra, ISIS fighters “captured” Russian army base with a huge number of weapons:

36 tanks
7 Infantry fighting vehicles (IFV)
8 army cargo truck
6 122mm cannons artillery
7 23 mm twin-barreled autocannons
Several BPM-97 “Vystrel” — new model of Russian mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicle
Several hundred AK rifle
unknown number of mortars
500 tonn [Sic] ammunition for all this weapon

[surely they can’t mean 500 tonnes?!]

Russian military just left their base, leaving everything without any battle.”

[added later] Swaida attacks on 25 July 2018

Captured documentary records of instigation

Two batches of papers have been captured and published:

  • One batch of papers from Daesh actual organisational founder, Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a former Iraqi Ba’ath army officer, codenamed Haji Bakr, who was appointed by Assad to prepare and establish Daesh;
  • The second batch of papers was recovered from Daesh’s offices by al-Tawhid Brigade when they were forced out of Aleppo in January 2014 faster than they could burn all their files.

Added February 2018

Captured financial accounts

“This article analyses documents taken from ISIS administrators and shows, through its own accounts, its sources of income.”

“The “Islamic State” terrorist group wants to present itself as a state but is little more than a mafia regime.”

Claims about international support, real and fake

First let’s get some clarity about the factions involved:

BBC examines claims of ideological and funding links with Saudi Arabia:

  • Ideological links are historical and the strands of Wahhabism they each follow are opposites (Saudi official Wahhabism is politically quietist, Da’aesh’s Wahhabism is extremely politically active against established Muslim authorities) and they diverged into polar enemies.
  • Funding links in SA are non-State private donors, but private donor income is only about 5% of Daesh’s total income.

Coalition countries including KSA have already cracked down on private donor funding to Daesh probably as much as they practically can, but even if they could do more, it could only reduce their income by about 5%.

There may be some funding from Saudi Arabia to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham or some parts of it, and they are problematic, but very different from Daesh.

Moral effects of false narratives about the regime and Da’aesh’s relationship

(Minor incidental point: Anarchy is not necessarily chaotic, and chaos is not necessarily anarchic. I think what Murtaza meant is more precisely ‘chaos’.)

The reason societies emerging from 40+ years dictatorships like Assad and Qaddafi’s regimes do not suddenly become flourishing peaceful democratic societies is that totalitarianism becomes ingrained in collective political psychology and cultural habits, even in some of its opponents. It’s simply not possible to go straight from A to Z, and the intermediate stages in post-totalitarian transitional societies will probably always be more or less painful and chaotic. The French and American revolutions were also painful and chaotic, some built-in imperfections still remain, but hardly anyone would deny in the long-view that they were overall necessary and good things.

Dictatorships have a natural lifespan, which is not as long as democratic societies’. See Democracy by mistake, Daniel Treisman, NBER Working Paper №23944, October 2017, and summarised and reported in Bloomberg.

‘You can crush the flowers, but you cannot stop the Spring.’

Assad’s regime will still fall; it’s collapse has only been drawn out in slow motion and made more painful by all the international interventions overtly or tacitly in his favour.

I don’t know how long it will be now, but I am convinced the regime will fall, probably in the next 5–10 years. Syrian civil society is in a relatively much stronger condition than Libyan civil society was (or is) before their revolution. Although Syria has suffered much more devastation, I think Syria will recover faster when the regime eventually goes.