I will expose here the reasons which make me think that ISIS is not a burning issue for Assad. This article is a short summary. For more detailed information, I advise you to click on the links provided in this blogpost. I strongly advise you to open the Syrian wikipedia template (click here) in a new tab while reading this article. You will need the map next to the article.
Assad freed prominent Islamist radicals
At the beginning of the Syrian uprising during the Arabic spring, Assad decided to make the conflict sectarian. He crushed peacefully secular protesters (including a lot of students) in a bloodshed while he released Islamist prisoners. Many of them became high ranked in djihadists groups like Al Nusrah and above all ISIS. One of them was Amr ‘Abu Atheer’ al-Absi. He is now dead. He was released from the Syrian jail during the amnesty of May 2011. He was the mentor of Abdelhamid Abaaoud (the Paris attacks mastermind), Najim Laachraoui (a Bruxelles attacker) and Mohamed Emwazi (alias ‘Jihadi John’ who became famous by his beheadings in particular the James Foley’s one).
Assad friends used to make money by smuggling oil from ISIS
Contrary to popular reception, Turkey was not the main destination for ISIS oil. As the dailybeast highlighted it:
The majority of ISIS oil is purchased by locals inside ISIS territory. ISIS doesn’t operate its own fleet of tanker trucks. That would be a waste of resources and manpower. Instead, the group relies on hundreds of middlemen who provide their own trucks and pay for the oil in cash at ISIS-controlled fields.
One of the main smuggler is George Haswani, a friend of Bachar el-Assad. In 2015, the EU decided to put him on its blacklist accusing him of buying ISIS oil for the Syrian government. It is possible it is less true after the regime retook Palmyra from ISIS in march 2016.
Syrian and Russian bombings did not focus on ISIS
We have to acknowledge one valid argument to Bachar el Assad. Al Nusrah, The Syrian franchise of Al Quaida is present in the Idlib region close to the regime strongholds. Al Quaida is not friendlier that ISIS. It is certain as this Vice documentary shows it (very interesting to watch). Al Nusrah cooperates with some other rebel groups for opportunistic purposes. However, since the beginning of the war, Assad clearly focused on more moderate groups instead of ISIS. One noteworthy example is the offensive in Northern Aleppo led by the Regime with the Russian air support in February 2016. There was neither presence of ISIS nor Al Nusrah. The moderate groups in Northern Aleppo were in the frontline against ISIS. The result was first the death of many civilians because air strikes were done without discrimination among the targets. Second, the logical consequence was an important setback of the rebels. They lost positions (some were taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces so it is not that bad) and their offensive against ISIS was stopped temporarily. Hopefully, the Syrian Democratic Forces (umbrella organization both Kurdish and Arabic but mainly lead by the Kurdish YPG) captured some cities making a buffer zone between the Free Syrian Army and the regime. The offensive begun again and in April 2016, FSA took Al Rai, one of the last two remaining border crossings of ISIS with Turkey.
Assad did not help to maintain truce in Aleppo
In may 2016, a truce was decided between the regime and the rebels. However, Bachar el Assad did not respect it for a long time. Quickly, air strikes begun again, making more and more civilian victims every day. Today, Omran is the symbol of this cruelty. Looking at the map, we notice Al Bab is close by the regime positions in Aleppo. Well, if ISIS loses both Al Bab and Manbij, the organization does not have any supply road to the rest of the land it controls. It is revealing that the regime preferred slaughtering civilians in Aleppo rather than tackling ISIS supply road.
The regime is now attacking the Syrian Democratic Forces, the most efficient organization against ISIS
In August 2016, the regime decided to attack the Syrian democratic forces in Hasaka, a city in northeastern Syria. Looking at the map, Hasaka is next with the frontline against ISIS. It is again revealing that the regime preferred attacking the Kurdish forces there rather than the ISIS forces at the south. Before, the Kurdish forces and the regime were more or less ignoring each other in Northern Syria. The 15 August 2016, Erdogan and Poutine agreed on a fresh start. The main ennemy of Turkey is the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party, communist Kurdish separatist group). War is raging now in Southeastern Turkey between the two opposing camps. Now, Poutine and Erdogan have become friends, Assad is attacking the Kurdish forces. The direct consequence is that the ability of the Syrian Democratic Forces to counter ISIS is crippled. The Syrian Democratic Forces just took Manbij and they were on the road to Al Bab which would be a huge setback for ISIS meaning its end. Indeed, ISIS would not have any possible supply any more (except if the Syrian regime helps a little bit …). The priorities of Assad can be definitely questioned.
In summary, I discussed many points showing that ISIS is not the main issue of Assad, He preferred to attack the rebels and to follow the agenda of his support (the Russia one). His behaviour clearly endangered the struggle against ISIS led by rebels and the Syrian Democratic Forces. My point is not to support the rebels or the Syrian Democratic Forces. I know they have their shortcomings. I just wanted to debunk pro-Assad propaganda which is very strong backed the Poutine supporters.