How the Syrian Government Kept Islamic State in Business

September 30, 2021 | Matthew Levitt
About the author: Matthew Levitt directs the Jeanette and Eli Reinhard program on counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he is also the Fromer-Wexler senior fellow. A former U.S. intelligence official, Levitt is the author of Hizballah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.

When the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched his bloody war against his own people in 2011, there were those who contended that, unpleasant as the Assad regime was, it was the only viable alternative to letting the country be taken over by terrorists. (This argument ignored Damascus’s support for Hizballah, or the fact that, at the time, it provided Hamas with its home base.) Vladimir Putin later seized upon this reasoning to justify Russia’s intervention in the war. With the rise of Islamic State (IS), this logic was taken one step further: the U.S. should make common cause with Assad’s patron, the Islamic Republic of Iran, to defeat the new terrorist threat. Matthew Levitt tells a very different story:

The regime of Bashar al-Assad consistently supported Islamic State when the group controlled significant amounts of territory, even as the regime struggled to retake control of Syrian territory from various rebel groups engaged in the Syrian civil war, including IS. 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, and not the Islamic State group.

It is, [moreover], inconceivable that Syrian intelligence could have assisted, facilitated, or tolerated IS operatives, [as it indeed did], 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 Islamic State in Syria in an effort to paint all of the Syrian opposition as “terrorists.”

One reason the Assad regime may have elected not to target IS positions in eastern Syria was the regime’s business dealings with the organization. The U.S. State Department has stated unequivocally that “the Syrian regime has purchased oil from IS through various intermediaries, adding to the terrorist group’s revenue.” . . . The Syrian regime also supported the financing of IS by allowing Syrian banks to continue to function and to provide financial services within IS-held territory. . . . [It] also looked the other way and allowed IS to conduct financial transactions through informal financial networks. [The] financial networks in question were not insignificant, making the Syrian government’s decision not to act against them, even once their activities became public, all the more galling.

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