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Monday, August 18, 2014

Middle-East Crisis: The Symbiotic Relationship Between Assad And ISIS

As the self-declared "Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham" continues to slaughter hundreds, occupy and govern a vast swathe of land and come close to capturing Baghdad and Irbil, the Kurdish capital, one cannot but wonder how its emergence could not be foreseen. Another interesting development is that the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad seems to have lost steam. Is there a symbiotic relationship between them ? Are they hostile in one level and  interdependent on one the other ?


It might seem an odd question given the fact that ISIS emerged as a group fighting to overthrow Al-Assad regime but then, as of now  it seems to be heading more towards Baghdad rather than towards Damascus. Perhaps,its a gamble Al-Assad was willing to take and it might actually have paid off considering the fact that he is still very much in control. The uprising in Syria had almost begun in 2011, if any government in the region had the least public support it was the Al-Assad regime and the Baathist President was aware of it more than anyone else. The Syrian regime also knew that its neighbouring states were going to make every effort to oust it with help of the West. However, unlike Mubarak and Gaddafi, Al-Assad had reliable allies like Iran which could provide logistic support and troops and Russia and China who could supply advanced weaponry as well as veto resolutions in UNSC. Moreover, Al-Assad had time to think over the threat and plan, which can explain why his response to the uprising has been so different and rather effective. Al-Assad's response to the uprising can be seen in three different yet simultaneous processes- Suppression, censorship and propaganda and radicalizing the movement.

Suppression of Non-Violent Uprising 

Anti-Assad non-violent protest
Unlike other authoritarian leaders like Mubarak and Gaddafi, Assad simply refused to accept that the protests reflected public sentiment. Instead he tried to blame criminal elements, opportunistic leaders and foreign elements for the uprising, claiming again and again that Syrian people supported him. Proceeding from the above argument, his forces were ordered to suppress uprising through use of brute force. After the non-violent protesters  demanding political reforms were met with deadly violence, the situation changed as the protestors began to attack Assad's force in which some policemen were killed. In April 2011, Syrian army attacked towns considered hostile to the establishment, using tanks, infantry and artillery. In fact, it has been nearly proven that the Syrian forces used the deadly Sarin gas as a form of collective punishment. 
The world remained silent as Assad crushed the uprising

 Thousands of activists were killed and several thousands arrested and continue to be in jail, which meant the intellectual architects of the uprising were removed from the masses. Several soldiers refused to fire upon fellow countrymen and left the army to found Free Syrian Army. As many as 50,000 to 100000 Syrian soldiers defected to Free Syrian Army which was essentially secular representing even Christian and Druze population.This and emergence of Islamist militant groups transformed the uprising into civil war. 

Censorship and Propaganda

For the first time in Arab Spring movement, the al-Assad administration made extensive use of state propaganda and censorship to obfuscate information in a manner unseen in the age of Internet. Of course, the government shut down telephone lines, mobile networks and the Internet, foreign independent news coverage were restricted and reporters covering protests were arrested. According to Wikipedia more than one hundred professional and citizen journalist had been killed by October 2012. Most of these are alleged to be the handiwork of government agencies rather than rebels. Having muted independent reporting, Al-Assad government has been using its official news agency SANA and other pro-government groups to disseminate information that all rebels are in fact, fanatic terrorists and lack support of the Syrian people.

 The propaganda convinced at least some people that Al-Assad was fighting against Islamist terrorists and from the beginning the conflict had been a sectarian one. However, it must be borne in mind that the uprising that began in 2011 was neither terrorist plot nor a conspiracy by neighbouring countries and West. It was a mass uprising for political freedom, with religious fanaticism playing a very insignificant role, yet this was the period when government offensive- military, propaganda and diplomatic was at its peak. Islamist groups started taking centre-stage in 2012-2013 onwards.  (The Islamic Front itself came into existence in November 2013). Allegations of atrocities on minorities and destruction of churches,mosques and tombs in the early days of the civil war have been found untrue. 

Military Offensive: Deception,Diversion, Division

The strategy Assad regime adopted to defeat the rebels was a machiavellian gambit using deception, diversion and engineering divisions in enemy ranks. The major opposition to the government forces was put up by the Free Syrian Army supported by the US, UK, France, Turkey,Qatar and Arab countries and consists of a force numbering from 50,000 to 100000, most of whom are defectors from the Syrian army after refusing to open fire on civilians. The FSA not only contains religious minorities such as Christians and Druzes but also ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Turkmen,Palestinians. Despite government's efforts to tar the uprising with sectarian color, at least till June 2012, Christians seemed more inclined towards the rebels than Al-Assad regime. As Islamist militants began to appear more frequently, the balance tilted towards them, as a result of Al-Assad insisting that he was fighting Islamist militancy as well as the radicals' extreme violence. There was an understanding between FSA and  moderate Islamist groups but with the arrival of the ISIS things changed significantly. As a matter of fact ISIS changed the nature of the conflict completely. But ISIS did not come out of the blue.

The worst indictment of Al-Assad government comes from the reports that the regime released Islamist militants from Sednaya prison in March 2011 who would had nothing to do with the uprising but would later go on to join Al-Qaeda affiliate or form the ISIS. ISIS opened the third front of battle against Free Syrian Army. This changed the course of the violence completely. While Syrian forces launched ground and air attacks against FSA and moderate Islamists, they were lot more charitable towards the ISIS. A lot of people believe that the Syrian regime is in cahoots with the ISIS but I beg to differ. It seems unlikely that fighters from other countries including western countries like Great Britain and Belgium would want to take part in this kind of violence for money or positions that Al-Assad can offer. Members of such extremist militant fraternity must be self-motivated with a strong sense of belief of them fighting for some lofty ideals and goal. If the Syrian regime cut them slack it is because Al-Assad knew that this new organization would substantiate its previous allegation of conflict being of sectarian nature. As far as threat to the regime was concerned, it was much lower than from other rebel groups.

The FSA and allies facing overwhelming force from both Syrian forces and ISIS conceded ground leading the terrorist to acquire advanced weaponry,armoured vehicles and other resources provided to FSA by the US. To further fan sectarian sentiment, Al-Assad (adhering to Alawite sect of Shia Islam), the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, forces from Iran and the Shabiha intervened on behalf of Syrian government. This allowed the terrorist group to expand its base into Iraq, in an environment in which of Al-Maliki government's persecution of Sunnis had already created a lot of dissent. ISIS overran a large part of Iraq taking over key oilfields and power plants becoming the richest terrorist group with asset over US$2 billion. Besides, ISIS command structure has been said to be very efficient. Shortly, defectors from other Islamist groups as well as new recruits joined up making it an immediate threat to neighbouring nation-states.


Ironically, even though ISIS originated from Syria,at this time Bashar Al-Assad faces the lowest level of threat faced in last three years. Rebels may control half the territories of Syria, his own position as President  remains unchanged. Assad now buys crude oil and electricity from ISIS itself. The horror stories emerging from Iraq and Syria's ISIS controlled areas and the fact that a lot of ISIS militants are foreigners, including from Europe has the West worrying. Besides, what was a Syrian Uprising has now turned into a global threat and current Syrian regime seems a bulwark against the terrorist threat. Further,by having its entire stockpile of declared chemical weapons destroyed by US military and civilians  personnels , the regime stands baptized in the eyes of the West.   Now Assad, despite being a cruel dictator who gasses his own subject and is morally responsible for the lives of over hundred thousands killed since 2011, in contrast to ISIS appears to be a secular, progressive President and leader whom the West won't anymore be keen to overthrow and create a vacuum that can be exploited by ISIS. 

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