Editor’s Note: The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) had many sources, ranging from the Iraqi government’s increased discrimination against Sunnis to the collapse of Syria into civil war. One vital factor, however, was the tolerance, and at times connivance, of the Syrian regime itself. The Washington Institute’s Matthew Levitt details how the Syrian regime cynically supported ISIS, using its rise as a way to discredit the broader Syrian opposition. Here he draws on a chapter written for “The Fight Against Terrorism: Achievements and Challenges” (Bruylant, 2021), a liber amicorum compilation prepared by Christiane Hohn, Isabel Saavedra and Anne Weyembergh in honor of longtime EU counterterrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove.
The regime of Bashar al-Assad consistently supported the Islamic State (ISIS) when the group controlled significant amounts of territory, even as the regime struggled to retake control of Syrian territory from the various rebel groups engaged in the Syrian civil war, including ISIS. One key tactic of the regime’s strategy was to focus its military efforts against the moderate Syrian rebel groups opposing the Assad dictatorship, in particular the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and not the Islamic State group. Assad typically would be involved in any major decisions, and government officials would be wary of the consequences of making sensitive decisions or taking sensitive actions without Assad’s prior approval. It is therefore inconceivable that Syrian intelligence could have assisted, facilitated or tolerated ISIS operatives without prior decision-making at the highest levels of the Syrian government. The Syrian regime made this strategic decision to enable and facilitate the continued survival of the Islamic State in Syria in an effort to paint all of the Syrian opposition as “terrorists.”