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Washington Risks Falling for Syria's ISIS Strategy, Again

Image: ISIL militants driving in vehicles near the central Iraqi city of Tikrit

An image grab taken from a propaganda video uploaded on June 8, by the jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) allegedly shows ISIL militants driving in vehicles near the central Iraqi city of Tikrit. AFP - Getty Images

The CIA estimates there are now as many as 31,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq murdering and enslaving anyone who opposes them — a death cult obsessed with publishing its own brutality online, such as the latest beheading video of British aid worker David Cawthorne Haines.

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But the White House is vowing to fight, declaring the United States is now at war with ISIS and will build an international coalition to crush the group. So far, the most enthusiastic response has come from the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. It’s hardly surprising. In fact, it follows a consistent Syrian tactic of using Islamic militants to create instability — and then relying on the U.S. to destroy them.

Washington fell for it once, and may do so again. ISIS is in many ways a creation of the Syrian regime. Now Syria wants the U.S. to destroy the group. We’ve seen this movie before.

Syrian Government Wary of American Airstrikes 2:07

April 2003

In April 2003, the Middle East looked very different from today. U.S. troops had just invaded Iraq. The world watched American air power, armor and troops smash Saddam Hussein’s army in 21 days, while American forces barely took any casualties themselves.

Saddam, back then the Arab world’s most notorious strongman, was on the run. The rhetoric in Washington and on American television was very aggressive; there was a swagger for all to see. From the Middle East, it looked like the American war machine was out of its stable and wasn’t ready to go back inside. Not yet, anyway.

American television commentators and military analysts openly discussed which regime should be attacked after Iraq. Would it be Syria, or perhaps Iran, a spoke in the axis of evil?

A week after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops, Bill Bristol of the Weekly Standard told Fox News, “It’s not a matter of having a hit list or picking targets one by one, or something like that. We need to be serious about weapons of mass destruction, and about states that sponsor terror. Syria has a weapons of mass destruction program. They are major sponsors of terror.”

Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post in 2005: “Syria is the prize. It is vulnerable and critical, the geographic center of the axis, the transshipment point for weapons, and the territorial haven for Iranian and regional terrorists. … If Syria can be flipped, the axis is broken.”

Arab nations vow to join ISIS fight 2:44

A good neighbor?

Syria and Iran decided to do everything they could to bog down the Americans in Iraq to discourage Washington from launching any new wars in the Middle East.

Syria unleashed Islamic militants into Iraq. The repressive regime in Damascus had many extremists in its prisons. Saddam did the same thing, emptying his jails before the Americans invaded. I remember seeing Islamic radicals walking around Baghdad in the weeks before the American war.

By 2004, the Islamic militants were doing what was expected of them. They were fighting American troops. They were blowing themselves up at checkpoints. They were creating what in the early days U.S. troops called the “insurgency.” Back then, most of the Islamic militants, especially foreign fighters, flowing into Iraq came though Syria. The border was open to them.

American generals in Iraq and newly minted Iraqi officials complained bitterly, accusing Syria of trying to sabotage the democratic experiment in Iraq. The Syrian border town of Qa’im was the main gateway Islamic radicals used to go to Iraq. Syria became the passageway for extremists from Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations to fight a jihad against American forces in Iraq.

In 2007, then-U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, John Negroponte, told The Washington Post that stability in Iraq depended on persuading Iran and Syria “to stop the flow of militants and munitions across their borders. … Forty to 70 foreign fighters every month come over the Syrian border.”

Then-President George W. Bush was also hopeful Syria would “do everything in her power to shut down the transshipment of suiciders and killers into Iraq. We expect Syria to be a good neighbor to Iraq.”

I visited Qa’im several times and interviewed Iraqi officials who said Islamic militants were openly crossing with assistance from Syrian border guards.

Over the next several years, the Islamists — who eventually called themselves al Qaeda in Iraq — would bog down American troops. The Islamic militants even managed to take over the Iraqi city Faluja, almost the same way ISIS took over the Iraqi city of Mosul this summer.

ISIS Tells Iraqi Christians to Convert or Die 2:16

Assad turns

But by 2008, the Assad regime was changing its position. The Islamic radical in Iraq had grown into a serious and uncontrollable threat, challenging not just American forces, but potentially destabilizing the entire region, including Syria. An American war against Syria no longer looked imminent. The President Bush-era was winding down. A new president would soon be in office. Assad decided to turn on the Islamists and help the U.S. military clean up the mess he was in part responsible for creating. Assad’s regime began arresting Islamic militants in Damascus. Assad became a secret and effective partner behind the scenes. U.S. special operations forces even occasionally operated inside Syria.

In October 2008, American commandos launched a cross-border raid into Syria to capture an Islamic militant known as Abu Ghadiya. He was accused of being one of al Qaeda in Iraq’s main smugglers of fighters and money between Iraq and Syria.

“You have to understand, the Syrian government was one of our best friends,” said a U.S. military source with direct knowledge of American special operations. “They were incredibly cooperative. The Syrians were picking up people for us.”

Assad was soon rehabilitated. Suddenly, he was portrayed as a stable modernizer who could be trusted. Damascus even became chic. Travel magazines pitched Damascus as a safe and exotic destination. In 2012, Vogue Magazine published a glowing profile of Bashar Assad’s wife Asma, entitled, “A Rose in the Desert.”

“Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic — the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She's a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her 'the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.' She is the first lady of Syria.”

But by the time the article hit the stands, Syria and its ruling family — which Vogue described as “widely democratic” — were in crisis again. The Arab Spring was tearing through the Middle East with support from the administration of President Obama.

The administration had abandoned Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. In Libya, rebels were taking up arms, eventually supported directly by American and European air power. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime would soon be toppled, too. The Libyan leader was murdered and sexually assaulted by an angry mob. Syrians were starting to rise up. They thought they’d get American air cover just like the Libyans.

The Obama administration said it would back the Free Syrian Army, making numerous promises to send them money and weapons. The Syrian rebels expected the U.S. military would impose a no-fly-zone over Syria. Assad unleashed the Islamists again. The first time, he wanted to bog down U.S. forces in Iraq. This time, he wanted to bog down the rebels and their American backers.

Richard Engel on the ISIS threat: Beheading 'Message to the World' 1:56

Assad's gamble

Assad emptied Islamic radicals from his prisons. It was a gamble, but the regime evidently hoped by injecting the militants into the pool of rebels, he’d poison the water. Assad’s main argument was that he was fighting terrorists, not bombing civilians asking for democracy.

The regime added extremists to the mix to make sure he was correct. Almost immediately, the Islamists began attacking the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. The moderate rebels were secular and talked about bringing elections and democracy. The Islamists, not yet called ISIS, wanted a strict Islamic state, according to their purist salafi interpretation of Islam. The Obama administration never gave the rebels the support it promised.

The Islamists grew, and for Assad, were increasingly convenient. He could point to the radicals — and parade them on Syrian television — as evidence that the opposition was nothing more than a band of dangerous zealots. Syrian state television never talked about the rebels asking for democracy. It described the government’s war on terrorism. The regime even gave the Islamists a boost.

Assad’s forces bombed the secular Free Syrian Army, killing thousands of civilians in the process, but rarely targeted the Islamists. It allowed the militants — later known as ISIS — to have a safe haven. Things are changing once again. The Islamists have grown so strong that like in Iraq in 2008, they have become a danger to the region and Assad’s regime.

Assad doesn’t have the precision weapons or American-style special operations forces to find and kill the Islamists. He wants the Americans to do what they did after 2008. He wants U.S. forces to clean up the mess he made. Syrian government officials are now calling on the administration to join the Syrian government to fight ISIS together. If the U.S. starts bombing ISIS, it will be helping Assad. It’s the same tactic Syria used effectively in Iraq — and nothing is more often replicated than success.