by Kyle W. Orton
"Eleven days into the Syrian uprising in March 2011, Assad freed hundreds of Islamist prisoners—and further releases followed. The infrastructure Assad had helped IS build meant they mobilized far more quickly than anyone else. “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work,” said a defector from Assad’s military intelligence (who still prefers the regime to the insurgency). Among those released was Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), a key figure in the formation of the caliphate. Bombings were staged by the regime and blamed on jihadists and sectarian atrocities were then committed in the conscious hope of an in-kind response to encourage the minorities, who are disproportionately represented in the Assad regime, “to rally around the regime and hold on to it.” The clear intent of all this was to switch “the narrative of the newborn Syrian revolution to one of sectarianism, not reform.”
As of late 2012, the Assad regime’s counter-insurgency strategy was built around aerial bombardment and displacement to prevent the opposition setting up an attractive alternate governance structure that people could defect to. Instructively, once IS emerged publicly in Syria and began seizing territory in Syria in mid-2013, notably Raqqa, it was left alone to construct its caliphate. The regime had arrested and killed peaceful demonstrators at the same time it was releasing violent Islamists, and as the war went on it consistently concentrated its firepower on the mainstream rebels and not IS—even when they were literally next to one-another. Once the rebellion went to war with IS, the regime stepped in on IS’s side. IS offensives were facilitated by the regime—including in Aleppo in 2014 and 2015 (the latter so blatant that the State Department called out the regime publicly) and in Marea in 2016. Assad cut deals with IS to avoid fighting it, Palmyra most prominently, which returned to bite the regime recently. Assad regime officials have been sanctioned for trading with IS—effectively funding terrorism. The Kremlin was connected with these middle-men and Russian technicians work with IS in the energy sector.
Put simply, the Assad regime—and its allies, Russia and Iran—have done everything they can to build up the jihadists in the insurgency to will into existence the predicament they always said existed in Syria: the regime or a terrorist takeover. This strategy of forcing a binary choice—and empowering enemies who defeat themselves—is called provocation, a tactic perfected by the Russians and disseminated by the KGB to regimes like Assad’s and Algeria’s."