Reports surfaced Wednesday morning of Syrian airstrikes against targets in western Iraq that killed scores of people and left more than 100 injured, reigniting concerns that spillover from the Syrian conflict is serving as a destabilizing force in the region.
State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf on Wednesday slammed Damascus for allowing ISIS to flourish and expand in Iraq:
MS. HARF: We’re helping the Iraqi Government.
QUESTION: Well, correct. Maliki is shorthand for the Iraqi Government. So are the Syrians apparently, militarily, with these air strikes, and so are the Iranians. Is this a – is this problematic at all?
MS. HARF: Well, I think there’s a couple issues all tied up in that question. First, we know that ISIL is a threat to the entire region, including to Iran. We know that – we’ve talked about that over the past few weeks in this room and elsewhere on that front. But to be clear, one of the, if not the main, reason ISIL has been allowed to grow in strength is because of the Assad regime, because of the climate they’ve created in Syria. And it’s been a direct result of that.
Last week NOW detailed the close ties between the Assad regime and ISIS, as well as with ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), including efforts by Assad to provide funding and material support to AQI to fight American troops in Iraq.
The Telegraph had already in January conveyed analysis from Western intelligence agencies cataloging how Damascus had fueled Sunni extremism both in the region and even specifically inside Syria, where some of those extremists were battling the regime:
Jabhat al-Nusra, and the even more extreme Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS), the two al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria, have both been financed by selling oil and gas from wells under their control to and through the regime, intelligence sources have told The Daily Telegraph.
Rebels and defectors say the regime also deliberately released militant prisoners to strengthen jihadist ranks at the expense of moderate rebel forces. The aim was to persuade the West that the uprising was sponsored by Islamist militants including al-Qaeda as a way of stopping Western support for it.
The piece highlighted accusations that Assad had functionally chosen his enemy in Syria’s conflict, empowering both extremist Shiite elements and Al Qaeda-linked groups on the Sunni side to squeeze out moderates.
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