ISIS as a Useful Player

Among the many catastrophes brought upon the peoples of the region by the US’ invasion of Iraq is ISIS. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or DAESH in its Arabic acronym (Dawla Islami al Iraq wa’sh Sham) was established in October 2004 as the ‘Iraqi Al Qaeda,’ if not in name then in worldview. It would both function as a resistance movement against the US invasion and keep Iraq from falling into Shiite hands. Anticipating the coming war before Iraq’s invasion, Al Qaeda moved some of its units to join their allies Ansar al Islam in Iraq, to fight against the probable US intervention.

Abu Musab al Zarkai, who was born in the Zerka region of Jordan and received political and military training in the organization’s camps in Afghanistan, was the highest level militant moving to Iraq.[1]

Two years later, in October 2006, when Syria became a haven for radical groups following the Arab Spring, the organization moved there and took the name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

The dark facade of ISIS in Syria is yet to be lifted, but many signs point at the Syrian intelligence being behind this shadowy organization. Syria is an intelligence state. As an intelligence agency, Al Muhabbarat has always been both the heart and the brain of the Syrian state. Their talent for intelligence had been the most factor in the Syrian state being an effective actor in the Middle East. During the Cold War, Al Muhabbarat was behind many Middle East-based organizations and their operations.

Khalid Khoja, the chairman of the Syrian National Council, an anti-regime opposition group, says that the Muhabbarat had started organizing the jihadi cadres since the first days of Iraq’s invasion. Thinking that it would be their turn after Iraq, long before the popular uprising that started in March 2011, Muhabbarat created this organization to bolster the resistance inside Iraq.

“In 2003, neocons such as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice said, ‘We started with Iraq, but the axis of evil will continue if we stop there.’ Axis of evil here was Syria, Iran and Iraq. They said, ‘We need to continue with the weak link.’ That was Syria. Assad had just been elected. He had been President for only three years. He felt that Syria was the second step. The Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq grew closer. Assad called for Izzet Nouri and gave support to the idea to start a Baath-centered jihadi movement. What did his intelligence men, Assaf Shawkat, Izzet Nouri and other former Baathist officers do next? They called up jihadi fighters from Algeria, Tunisia, Libya. Then they trained them. Mosques started to deliver jihadist sermons. Despite the oppressive nature of the regime, jihadis were able to sign up to be taken to the Iraqi front by buses, especially from Aleppo.”[2]

The role of the jihadis in Iraq was armed resistance against the American invasion. But their role in Syria was different.

ISIS would allow the Syrian regime to claim that the uprising in that country was a radical Islamic uprising backed by foreign powers. This intelligence operation that aimed to transform the perception of the international public opinion was carried out quite successfully.

How exactly was this intelligence operation managed?

Let us outline the tangible data.

When people went on the streets demanding regime change and free elections, the regime chose to quash the protests with force, attacked unarmed protesters with arms, started killing many people even in the earliest days of the protests.

 Against this background, in the very beginning of the uprising, on March 26, 2011, the regime freed 260 prisoners from Sednaya Prison, known for its radical inmates.

 Khalid Khoja’s words:

 “Assad freed the prisoners at the end of 2011. Consequently, Maliki [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki GZ] opened up his prisons. There were three high profile escape cases from the most tightly-guarded prisons. Baghdadi was among them. Alongside him, former majors and higher ups of the Iraqi Baath intelligence were freed. They formed this organization. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. First it was Iraq, then they added Sham when they went into Syria, and they worked on a complete intelligence basis. Islamic State, this, that… Think of it as intelligence, the rest is a cover. In Damascus, most of those joining ISIS were shabbihas. The operational members of DAESH have been security personnel. It’s all Baathist intelligence. Look at their initial actions. They took away liberated zones from the Free Syrian Army in the most violent manner. Beheadings, burnings.”[3]

A significant portion of those who were freed later became part of the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, and ISIS. In short, the regime tried from the beginning to radicalize the uprising that started as peaceful protests, and it succeeded.

The emergence of ISIS as a useful tool during the civil war really started after


In July 2013, ISIS fighters broke into Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison famous for the scenes of torture by American soldiers, and kidnapped about 500 Al Qaeda members. Among those kidnapped were people who would come to play the most key roles in ISIS’ operations in Syria.

Here it would be prudent to look at statements by Muhammed Qassem Nasser, who worked as  a prosecutor general in the Palmyra district of Homs between 2013-2015, but had to flee the country. Nasser had an insider’s look into the developments in the region due to his position. He also had continuous contact with Brigadier Generals Mazim Abdullatif and Malik Habib, then heads of intelligence in the region.

“For example, Abdullatif told me that his spies inside the organization were planning a terror attack inside Turkey. This conversation took place in early 2015. He told me that Turkey would pay the price for its intervention in Syria and face the fire of terror, that Europe, including France and President Francois Hollande who wanted the Assad regime to fall, would also pay a heavy price, that his men in Raqqa would act soon and we would get good news soon. Indeed, within a few months there were bombing attacks in both France and Turkey…[4]

Mohammed Qassem Nasser also says that, during his tenure as prosecutor in Palmyra, a close friend of his and Sheikh Mahmoud al Hammudi, a muteahhit close to the Syrian regime, shared some private information with him. These two told the story of how regime officer Mohammad al Jabir delivered arms as part of an arms deal with ISIS:  

“Jabir left the arms requested by ISIS either with the Badia Hawks Brigade (the military unit) under his own command or a military checkpoint. Then ISIS militants would attack these points, and Jabir would tell soldiers to retreat for their own safety. ISIS would temporarily take control of the region, move the armament to its own headquarters, and after all the arms were transported the Badia Hawks would recapture the area. Then millions of dollars would be transferred from ISIS to Jabir via couriers. All the officers and officials in Palmyra knew about what Jabir did but I don’t know why they never objected to it.”[5]

 The following five statements could be made regarding the ever clearer role of ISIS on the field today:

 ISIS has awarded the regime with legitimacy by instilling the fear that radical Islamists would replace them if the Syrian regime ever collapsed. Indeed, in a way that would bolster that belief, various footage of ‘beheadings by radical Islamists’ have been presented to the international public in HD cameras and specially prepared decor. The world watched these videos in horror. This was an extraordinarily successful image-making campaign. Western media organizations jumped at these visuals, which, coupled with the rising wave of racism and Islamophobia in Europe and America, doubled in impact. Soon after, the regime assumed the identity of a ‘legitimate actor’ fighting radicals. This also created legitimacy for Western attitude towards keeping Assad in power.

 Bayram Bozyel, a Kurdish politician closely following regional developments, said the following on ISIS’ role in January 2016:

 “ISIS has prolonged the shelf life of the Assad regime. The Assad regime has convinced the world that anything is better than ISIS, so to speak. The whole world today has focused on destroying ISIS, and the issue of the Assad regime has been relegated to the backseat. And this has dealt them a comfortable hand. And of course, here ISIS seems to be at the forefront, but really this is about portioning up the Middle East, securing the energy resources in the region, and a re-assignment of roles. This is what the struggle is about.”[6]

 By engaging in a tactical partnership with the regime area by area, ISIS opened up the way for the PKK/PYD line, and handed over areas to the YPG by strategically withdrawing from areas under its own control. There were many examples of this on the field, but an especially striking one was the transfer of Tal Abyad from ISIS to PYD in July 2015. This move significantly changed the balance in the region. In accordance with the result of the ISIS-regime-PYD meeting held in Al Hasakah, the Syrian regime gave up Palmyra to ISIS, while the latter gave up Tal Abyad to PYD/YPG elements. Giving up the majority-Arab town of Tal Abyad to PYD/YPG ensured the unification of the Jazeera and Afrin cantons in the east and the west respectively.

The main justification for Russia’s, or the regime’s utmost supporter’s, military intervention in Syria in the fall of 2015 was ‘fighting terror.’ The terror in question was that of ISIS. Despite this declaration to the international community, 91 percent of all Russian bombardment in Syria from September 30 to December 22 2015 did not target ISIS. Out of the 4098 sorties carried out by the Russian military, only 300 targeted ISIS. Their targets also included opposition forces fighting ISIS.

3. ISIS did not only give Russia a justification and opportunity to descend on Syria, but also provided the US with these things in helping them realize their projects concerning the region. The PKK’s engulfing of nearly the entire Turkish border under the banner of PYD/YPG happened thanks to the ISIS excuse. We go over the details of that process in other sections.

4.  One of the areas where ISIS was used most effectively was in -fighting against Turkey. Actors who wanted to keep the regime in Syria in place at whatever cost have effectively used this organization to ‘teach Turkey lessons.’

We witnessed the 2015 suicide attack in Suruc be used as a basis for the PKK attack in Ceylanpinar (?) that ended the effective non-conflict- situation between the state and the PKK. The PKK damaged the Turkish-Kurdish peace efforts by making it look like this attack, which by all available data was carried out by ISIS, was instead done by the Turkish state. The ISIS attack on the train station in Ankara is the greatest terror attack in Turkish history. In both Suruc and Ankara, targets were professionally selected in a way to assault the country’s fault lines. Other ISIS suicide attacks on high-profile tourism spots such as the Ataturk Airport, Sultanahmet and Istiklal Avenue clearly aimed to force Turkey to change its policies on the field in Syria. Turkey was at once a target of ISIS terror and being made to look like an ISIS supporter in international media, controlled by the same actors.[7] 

 The violence put on display in Syria and Iraq by ISIS served to -take Islamophobia to even larger populations in the West. With other radical groups, ISIS helps reproduce feelings of anti-Islam in the West.

Prof. Erol Göka explains:

 “ISIS and Islamophobia are of course not only related but irrevocably interconnected. Whatever perception of Islam and Muslims works best for those who invented Islamophobia corresponds perfectly with the international public image of ISIS. The interesting (and expected, for me) part is that more and more there is a tendency to equate ISIS with Islam and Muslims. The more successful this effort to equate the two is, the easier it will be for Islam and Muslims to be the “evil-other.”[8]

[1]  Nevzat Çiçek, ‘The US invasion if Iraq and Afghanistan created terror groups’, Habertürk newspaper, October 18, 2014

 [2]  ISIS: Deciphering the Third World War, Betül Soysal Bozdoğan, Hayy Yayınları, First Edition, June 2016, pp. 145

 [3] ISIS: Deciphering the Third World War, Betül Soysal Bozdoğan, Hayy Yayınları, First Edition, June 2016, pp.148

[4] , 14.02. 2016, Witness to Assad-ISIS Alliance speaks to AA

[5] Witness to Assad-ISIS Alliance speaks to AA , 14.02.2016

[6], Interview with Bayram Bozyel, January 5, 2016

[7]  As discussed in the next chapters, ISIS was not just useful for the Assad regime and its supporters. It was also one of the two most important players used by the US in its efforts to reshape the region. The double game included both ISIS and the PKK’s armed wing in Syria, the YPG.

[8] Betül Soysal Bozdoğan, ISIS: Deciphering the Third World War, hayykitap, pp. 320