Is Assad colluding with ISIS in Syria?

There is now a strong body of evidence pointing to a degree of collusion between ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria – posing the urgent question: why?

Over the last couple of years, voices from the military, politics and commerce have shown that when it suits them, the Assad regime and ISIS are capable of cooperating. High profile defectors and individuals on the ground have argued that there is a logic to this situation. Basically, both sides wish to crush the democratic forces that initiated the uprising against Assad back in 2011.

Syrians who have witnessed this cooperation question how ISIS can still claim to be anything more than an exercise in grabbing land, power and wealth. It’s even been suggested by one expert that knowing it faces defeat in the future, ISIS hopes to “stabilise its position” with the Assad regime by striking deals with the Syrian dictator.

The most damning proof that Assad and ISIS are aligned is the way in which the city of Palmyra has changed hands repeatedly over the last eighteen months. Palmyra is in the district of Tadmur and its former attorney general Mohamed Qassim witnessed at first hand the close ties between the terrorists and the Syrian dictator.

“I was a witness to the relationship between the Syrian regime and Daesh,” he explains. He had been told by city’s intelligence chief Mazen Abdel-Latif that government agents had even managed to infiltrate ISIS. “These agents are in contact with the regime; they are conveying information to us about the militant group”.

Qasim alleges that when Tadmur and Palmyra first fell to ISIS, Assad had been warned by his own officials of the danger weeks before. But he chose to let ISIS overrun the area, hoping they would destroy its Roman ruins bolstering the image he wanted in the international community as the protector of Syria. This was despite the huge risk ISIS presented to dissenting Sunni Muslims, Alawites and Christians.

Sky News obtained documents last year proving that Assad withdrew his forces to let ISIS take Palmyra in 2015 – who then collaborated with Damascus on evacuating the city allowing the regime to move back in again. While this to-ing and fro-ing was going on, both sides were trading oil for fertiliser. Terrorism expert Afzal Ashraf is sure that as Assad and ISIS had been trading, other communication must also have been going on.

A surprising level of business activity has continued between ISIS and Assad areas. One businessman close to the Assad regime told Time magazine he traded all over Syria, including ISIS territory. There was nothing unusual about this, he added. Assad still allowed Syrian engineers to repair communications towers in Raqqa where Syria’s two main mobile phone operators have never stopped operating. Food trucks from Syria were still arriving in ISIS-controlled Raqqa “and they give receipts stamped with the ISIS logo”.

Now a military voice has come forward to affirm this overall pattern of co-operation.

Colonel Fateh Hassoun is a member of the Syrian opposition negotiating team attending peace talks in Geneva and a member of the Free Syrian Army’s Joint Command. What he claims fits a pattern going back at least three years of collusion between the Syrian dictator and ISIS.

Hassoun confirmed that Tadmur and Palmyra had indeed been handed over in an orderly manner not once but twice between Assad and ISIS. To the outside world, the inability of Damascus to hold on to Palmyra looked like military incompetence of the highest order. But what insiders reveal is a pattern of Machiavellilan brinkmanship where Assad is using terrorists to wipe out pro-democracy forces.

To back this claim up, observers point to the lower level of strikes against ISIS and their unwillingness to close in on Damascus. Assad has directed his main fire power at cities where other opposition groups are stronger but Raqqa, the centre of ISIS operations, has never experienced the horrific bombardment endured by Aleppo.

A report by The Daily Beast suggested that this has been part of a long-term strategy by the regime to bury the reputation of democracy activists who launched the revolt against Assad. His officials have bolstered Al Qaeda, infiltrated terrorist groups and even tried to direct terrorist operations. The strategy appears to be to deal with the democracy movement first before deciding what to do with the terror groups.

Aleppo illustrated that the regime is intent first and foremost on delivering an object lesson to ordinary Syrians – men, women and children – on what happens if you revolt against Damascus. Dropping barrel bombs in civilian areas has illustrated this point in horrific terms.

ISIS has also employed its own military tactics to subdue ordinary Syrians with public executions and cruel punishments. So in their respective areas of control both Assad and ISIS have traumatised millions of ordinary Syrians into submission. Worse, these two parties appear to have developed a way of co-existing while snuffing out all traces of the original Syrian revolution.