ISIS, formerly al Qaeda in Iraq, experienced resurgence after President Barack Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from that country.
"Let’s begin with the background of ISIL," Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center said in a Sept. 3 speech at the Brookings Institution. "The veteran Sunni terrorist, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, founded the group in 2004 and pledged his allegiance to bin Laden. Al Qa‘ida in Iraq, as it was then known, targeted U.S. forces and civilians using suicide bombers, car bombs, and executions to pressure the U.S. and other countries to leave Iraq. It gained a reputation for brutality and tyranny.
"In 2007, ISIL’s continued targeting and repression of Sunni civilians in Iraq caused a widespread backlash—often referred to as the Sunni Awakening—against the group," said Olsen. "This coincided with a surge in U.S. and coalition forces and Iraq counterterrorism operations that ultimately denied ISIL safe haven and led to a sharp decrease in its attack tempo.
"Then in 2011, the group began to reconstitute itself amid growing Sunni discontent and the civil war in Syria," said Olsen.
In December 2011, while ISIL was reconstituting itself in Iraq, President Obama withdrew the last forces from that country.
"In 2012," said Olsen, "ISIL conducted an average of 5-10 suicide attacks per month. And by last summer that number grew to 30-40 attacks per month.
"While gaining strength in Iraq," Olsen said, "ISIL exploited the conflict and chaos in Syria to expand its operations across the border. The group established the al-Nusrah Front as a cover for its activities in Syria, and in April 2013, the group publicly declared its presence in Syria under the ISIL name."
On Tuesday at the State Department, however, Psaki indicated it was al Assad's decision to ignore ISIS that allowed it to rise.
“Over the past couple of years because of the conflict in Syria and the Syrian regime’s unwillingness – or willingness, I should say, to look the other way, AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq what became ISIS) reconstituted and was able to grow in strength again,’ Psaki said in a press briefing Tuesday. “The Syrian regime looked the other way and didn’t fight this effort.’”
In a June 13, 2013 telephone briefing with reporters, Deputy White House National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes had stated that it was the aim of the Obama administration to remove the Assad regime from power in Syria and to that end it had started to provide military aid to Syrian rebels.
“The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition,” Rhodes said then. “That will involve providing direct support to the SMC [the Supreme Military Council of the Syrian rebels]. That includes military support. I cannot detail for you all of the types of that support for a variety of reasons, but suffice it to say, this is going to be different in both scope and scale in terms of what we are providing to the SMC than what we have provided before.”
On Wednesday, CNSNews.com asked the Psaki about the department’s complaint this week that the Assad regime did not sufficiently resist ISIS – even though ISIS is among the groups fighting to overthrow Assad.
“Given your statements yesterday, is it the administration’s position that Assad’s regime should be fighting and working to destroy ISIS?” CNSNews.com asked.
“Certainly, I think they have stated and made claims that they have been fighting ISIS or terrorist organizations and we haven’t seen much evidence of that over the last few years and they’ve allowed ISIL to grow and given them a safe haven in Syria so that’s what I was referring to,” Psaki replied.
“But the U.S. would support Assad fighting ISIS?” CNSNews.com asked again.
“We don’t coordinate with them militarily. We know what their objectives are. We understand that ISIL is a threat or a concern they have as they’ve made it known publicly, but we’re not coordinating with them,” Psaki said.
She emphasized again that “the point is that they haven’t taken steps over the past couple of years to fight ISIL, which has in fact led to the growth of their presence in Syria and the impact they’ve had on the region.”
By contrast, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a briefing in August that the “long-term vision” of ISIS is to conquer Syria—as well as Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Israel.
“Longer term, it's about ISIL's vision,” said Dempsey, “which includes – I actually call ISIL, here we go, right, ISIS, I-S-I-S, because it's easier for me to remember that their long-term vision is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. And al-Sham includes Lebanon, the current state of Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait.
Prior to ISIS’s split from al Qaeda, al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri made a video exhorting Sunni jihadists to support the Syrian rebels in overthrowing Assad’s regime as a step towards conquering Jerusalem.
“With the increased criminality of the secular, sectarian, Ba'ath regime, our audacious, brave, Mujahid people are each day becoming steadier, more patient, more resistant, and braver,” he said.
“Do not rely on the West and Turkey who have dealt, negotiated, and associated with this system for decades,” Zawahiri added. “All of these do not want a free, strong, and independent Muslim Syria that is waging Jihad against Israel. They want a Syria that is subordinate and vulnerable and separated from its religion, heritage, history, and glory. They want a Syria that recognizes Israel, and that is consistent with and is subject to the global oppression, which they call international legitimacy.”
A Sept.17 Congressional Research Service Report on the conflict in Syria stated that “The Islamic State controls large areas of northeastern Syria, where it continues to clash with forces opposed to and aligned with the government of Bashar al Asad,” but makes no mention of Assad’s regime allowing ISIS to grow in strength.
Olsen said in a speech last month at the Brookings Institution that the “strategic goal” of ISIS "is to establish an Islamic caliphate through armed conflict with governments it considers apostate—including Iraq, Syria, and the United States."
"ISIL views itself as the new leader of the global jihad," he concluded.
The Assad regime in Syria is not only secular, but has been allied with Shiite Iran.
"The Asad regime and Iran are linked by similar sectarian identities that distinguish them from Sunni Muslims: the Asads come from the Alawite community whose religious beliefs are distantly derived from Shiism, which is the overwhelmingly dominant sect in Iran," the Congressional Research Service reported.
"Along with geopolitical and other factors, this bond helped Iran and Syria transcend the Arab-Persian differences that would tend to divide them, as well as the contrasts between the Islamist nature of Iran’s regime and Asad’s secular rule," it added.