Never short of conspiracy theories – some of the most ludicrous of which have actually come to pass – the Middle East was this week watching intently to see how the latest theory unfolded. It turned on signs that President Bashar Assad, having despaired of outside help to save his regime, had forged a secret deal with ISIS leader Abi Bakr Al-Baghdadi for a carve-up of the various war fronts between the Syrian and Islamist armies.
The theory gained a headwind from messages posted on the US embassy Syria official Twitter feed of June 1, which accused Syria of staging air strikes to help ISIS fighters advance around the northern city of Aleppo.
Fighters from the Levant Front, a northern alliance which includes Western-backed rebels and Islamist fighters backed by Saudi Arabia, said they were worried that ISIS was heading for the Bab al-Salam crossing between Aleppo and the Turkish province of Kilis.
If insurgent forces north of Aleppo are forced to retreat, the Islamic State will be able to threaten their supply route to the city, keep it out of rebel hands and present the prize to Assad’s army.
ISIS is promised control of Syria’s borders
The most prevalent conspiracy theory outlines a deal between Assad and Al-Baghdadi that would have the Syrian government rescind Palmyra in exchange for keeping Aleppo. Assad would give up the southern town of Deraa (on the Jordanian border) if ISIS columns coming from the northeast (Der ez-Zour) would agree to smash Syrian opposition forces threatening to march on Damascus from the South and from the Golan town of Quneitra.
Some theorists in Middle East intelligence circles say that another part of this understanding stipulates that the Syrian army would not just pull out of Palmyra, but also leave behind for the Islamists to take over the large weapons depots located in bases around the city, in return for a pledge not to harm the town’s population or vandalize its famous historical treasures.
It is a fact that, in the two weeks since seizing Palmyra, ISIS has not demolished its archeological sites, as it did in Iraq. Instead, the group on May 30 blew up the notorious Tadmor prison used by the Assad regime to incarcerate and torture its enemies.
Two facts surfacing in the Syria war could attest to some sort of arrangement between the Syrian government and the Islamic State – forming a new equation: ISIS would get to control Syria’s borders with neighboring Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel, after snatching them from the rebel forces sponsored by the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and Israel.
Assad may use ISIS as a buffer against Western-backed rebels
The quid pro quo for Assad may be a pledge by Al Baghdadi to keep his hands off Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Latakia and Tartous, and respect the Assad regime’s authority in the capital and on Syria’s Mediterranean coastal strip. Its predominantly Alawite population must remain unscathed, not only as the Syrian ruler’s power base but also as a possible reservoir of fresh troops to reinforce his dwindling army.
At the beginning of the week, as opposition forces closed in on the coastal regions, the Syrian Republican Guard in Qardaha, President Assad’s hometown, called on young men to join the newly formed Coastal Shield Brigade and earn 40,000 Syrian pounds ($210) a month. The call was distributed on wall posters appealing to the youth of the poor Alawite communities in the provinces of Latakia and Tartous.
Assad was scraping the bottom of the barrel for manpower, while waiting for his allies to come up with tangible help against the two-pronged menace heading his way.
The sensible option for the Syrian ruler, an inveterate changer of bedfellows, would be to go for a deal with ISIS for a double reward – both to disarm one prong – the Islamists themselves – and to use them as an effective buffer for his regime against the opposition forces sponsored by the US and Sunni Arab governments.
Assad and Al Qaeda are former business partners
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources note that the Assad clan’s ties with Al Qaeda go back a long way, at least 15 years.
From the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 up until 2006, heads of the Assad regime were fully engaged in the profitable business of funneling thousands of al Qaeda recruits from around the world into Iraq to fight the Americans. Three of Bashar’s closest cronies were in charge of the project: The then intelligence chief, the late Assef Shawqat who was married to Bashar’s sister Bushra, his young brother Maher Assad and his cousin, wealthy and powerful businessman Rami Makhlouf (who lives now in one of the Gulf emirates).
After they were processed in special Syrian training camps, the Al Qaeda recruits were armed by Syrian intelligence before being sent across the border into Iraq.
The Assads piled up a multi-billion fortune from the handsome fees paid out by Gulf tycoons for every batch of jihadis they shepherded across to Iraq.
Today too, the Assad regime keeps a finger in the profits made by ISIS from selling Syrian oil illicitly on the international black market.
Izzat Ibrahim as matchmaker between Assad and ISIS
DEBKA Weekly has lifted another item pertinent to the conspiracy theory from the Syrian ruler’s checkered record of multiple loyalties. The Assad dynasty shared the Baathist totalitarian, repressive creed with the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, some of whose most notorious atrocities, such as decapitations by black-clad executioners, recur in the brutalities practiced today by the Islamic State.
A group of the Iraqi dictator’s elite officers, led by his close crony Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, have made themselves part of ISIS and orchestrated some its most successful operations in Iraq and Syria with professional competence. (See separate article in this issue: The Islamic State May Thrive for Years against Floundering Western Strategy)
Al Douri and those officers, all faithful members of the defunct Iraqi Baath, got away from Baghdad after the US toppled the Saddam regime. But they kept their hands on Saddam’s vast financial resources. Today, they are tapping those assets to finance Islamic State operations.
In another age, when Baathists held sway in Baghdad and Damascus, Izzat al Douri and the Assad clan were very close. The Baathist veteran would have been the right matchmaker for bringing the Syrian ruler and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi together.