Terrorism can be considered as the use of violence as a means to achieve certain political goals, yet the phenomenon of terrorism can be used instrumentally as well. Labeling an opponent a terrorist happens in many conflicts. Syrian opposition forces and a number of international analysts believe the Syrian regime has taken the instrumental use of the terrorist phenomenon one step further however.
They blame the regime of cooperating with al-Qaeda linked jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS; also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL or Daulat al-Islam fi al-Iraq wal-Sham, DAASH and formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, AQI). According to the secular opposition, observations of non-confrontation and cooperation within the conflict, together with documents found in former ISIS compounds, support these claims. Other sources indicate the Syrian regime has released ISIS-affiliated prisoners. Jihadi presence in Syria fits well into the regime’s narrative as the best option against jihadism. The rationale is that the regime benefits from creating a terrorist enemy. International demands to depose the Syrian regime would fall silent and acquiesce with the necessary fight against the internationally recognized al-Qaeda threat. Apart from this international perspective, it might also weaken the secular opposition.
The regime denies the allegations and there are doubts that the regime would actively support ISIS. Why would they? Would the Syrian regime really take such a gamble? If it were true and could be proven, it would ruin the regime’s international standing in the eyes of its allies – or at least what is left of it. Moreover, if the allegations are true and it were to be made public; that the Bashar al-Assad regime is indeed in collusion with radical elements like ISIS, then a spike in violence might be seen against regime held territories. The secular regime with Shia Muslim background backed by foreign powers is clearly regarded as an ultimate enemy of Sunni Muslim jihadists.
Then again, Syria is no stranger to Machiavellian politics. It has supported (predecessors of) ISIS in its fight in Iraq the last decade. While it suppressed its own Kurdish population, the regime provided shelter to Abdullah Öcalan’s Kurdish Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK) from Turkish Kurdistan, which committed terrorist attacks in Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s. Syria then regarded PKK as an instrument to keep pressure upon its regional rival Turkey. Just like it used Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah to keep pressure on Syria’s nemesis Israel.
Conclusive evidence is lacking. Yet, from both a pragmatic and a historical point of view the possibility that the Syrian regime – fighting for survival – has actively created and is supporting a terrorist menace for its own interest is not unthinkable.