The Assad dictatorship has worked hard to create a binary between itself and extremists. The destruction of the IS will leave the dictatorship exposed and vulnerable as never before.
With the United States being sucked inexorably into an unavoidable and wider conflict with the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS; formerly ISIS) in Iraq, attention has quickly turned to the fact that the terrorist group’s main redoubt is in northern Syria. Therefore, if there is to be a broad confrontation with the IS, as US military Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey warned last week, it would have to extend itself into Syria. And there is every indication that the United States is preparing contingencies for just that.
Inevitably, the cry has gone up in some quarters that the only logical thing to do is to partner with the ghastly dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in order to defeat these crazed fanatics. Indeed, a recent report, although apparently based largely on conjecture, by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent, suggests that Western intelligence agencies are already sharing information on the IS with the Damascus dictatorship through the German intelligence agency.
The Assad regime smells yet another opportunity to rehabilitate itself, similar to the outrageous chemical weapons deal that was struck after numerous instances of chemical attacks against Syrian civilians and rebels. That turned Assad into a partner of the West, at least insofar as the chemical weapons decommissioning project was concerned. But that implied that Assad had to keep controlling key areas of the country and that his rule had an important, positive purpose, at least in that narrow framework. He discovered a new formula in international relations: dumping chemical weapons on innocent people is a potential path to new diplomatic and political legitimacy.
And how has that gone? Well, in May, France and Human Rights Watch simultaneously accused the Syrian dictatorship of continuing to use chemical weapons, including chlorine gas. Big success!
But the notion that Assad is a plausible or useful long-term ally against the IS can only be based on the most superficial and pseudo-logical understanding of Syrian realities. In fact, the IS has been, and remains, the linchpin of the survival of the Damascus regime.
From the outset of the uprising against him, even when he was faced by only unarmed demonstrators, Assad and his cronies wove an elaborate mythology about an assault by international jihadists backed by Al Qaeda. And over the course of the next year-and-a-half his regime worked night and day to ensure that this mythology became a reality.
And, after all, the Syrian regime had a long-standing relationship with the Islamic State’s immediate predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Throughout the American occupation, Damascus gave a laissez passé to foreign fighters who wanted to go to Iraq and join the AQI in order to attack Americans, Shiites and others. As long as they kept their heads down in Syria, they were welcome to pass through. So these two entities have a very long history of not only knowing each other, but knowing how to make each other useful. The sordid history of Assad-AQI/ISIS collaboration was neatly encapsulated in a short but invaluable essay by Peter Neumann in the London Review of Books last April.
As the uprising gained steam, the Syrian dictatorship released the most notorious Salafist-jihadists they were holding from prison. They concentrated their fire power on the Free Syrian Army and other nationalist groups that actually threatened to potentially overthrow the regime successfully, while ignoring the steady gains of ISIS. As Hassan Hassan has pointed out, “When [ISIS] Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, … the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.” Instead, it did nothing. Except purchase large quantities of oil from ISIS, fattening their coffers even further.
It’s not so much that the regime welcomes the loss of these relatively remote areas in northern and eastern Syria. It’s that it can do without them if it has to. What’s central to the survival of the Assad dictatorship is a long strip in the western half of the country beginning at the Lebanon border, continuing up through Qalamoun, Damascus, and Homs and thence into the Alawite heartland around Latakia. As long as those areas can be secured, the fundamental interests of the dictatorship are guaranteed. If Kurdish areas in the north fall to local fighters, or the IS overruns large areas of the West, that’s just unfortunate.
But there is a distinct upside to the rise of the IS for the regime. It has established, in the minds of many Syrians, and particularly many in the West, a false binary in which the choice is between deranged jihadist monsters versus a criminal mafia regime that is largely responsible for the death of at least 200,000 people in the past three years and that will stop at nothing to cling to power.
So now Assad and his henchmen say they want to be part of the battle against the IS. It’s a perfect example of the arsonist showing up at an uncontrolled blaze posing as a fireman. Obviously, nobody wants to have an uprising against them. But if you must have enemies, the more deranged and terrifying they are, the better. So as long as there is a war in Syria, Assad simply cannot do without the Islamic State or something extremely similar.
The notion of partnering with the Syrian government against the IS is just silly at every level.
First, his forces show no interest or ability in actually or effectively fighting these lunatics. Indeed, they just lost control of the Tabqa airfield, 25 miles outside the IS’s stronghold and capital of Raqqa. This means that Raqqa Province is the first region of Syria to fall entirely out of the control of the regime, and it should surprise absolutely no one that it has fallen to the IS.
Second, for the Damascus dictatorship, the IS is the perfect enemy. It’s not as if there won’t still be an uprising afterwards, should the IS be defeated or badly degraded. On the contrary, it’s likely that opposition forces would be greatly strengthened and the arguments and appeal of the regime profoundly weakened.
So, in the short run, Assad might want to try to pose as a partner to the West in attacking the terrorists. But in the long run, he needs them, and he knows it. He cannot afford a situation in which less-repulsive alternatives present themselves, or his chances of losing power will increase exponentially. The battle against the IS was first a mythology, and then a reality, that he created with a great deal of calculation and skill. Abandoning that strategy in the long run is almost unthinkable for him.
Finally, the IS cannot be successfully countered by sectarian non-Sunni troops, either in Syria or Iraq. Anyone who imagines that an Alawite-dominated Syrian army or extremist Shiite militias in Iraq can be the solution to crushing or profoundly degrading the IS has failed to understand how and why the group has risen to prominence. It feeds off of the deepest Sunni Muslim rage, both locally and internationally.
Therefore, neither Damascus nor Baghdad, directly, are the key to defeating them. The IS clearly can only be countered by other, local Sunni Muslim forces on the ground, and by an international coalition that does not reflect the sectarian and dictatorial tendencies of Assad and outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This has been done before, and it can be done again. There are innumerable incentives and disincentives (weapons, money, intelligence, etc.) that can tap into already-existing and profound discontent with Islamic State extremism in local and national Sunni groupings in both Syria and Iraq. And, of course, Arab Sunni-majority regional powers need to be heavily involved in this effort.
The key fact is that attacking the IS in Syria is, in the long run, a way of attacking the Assad regime as well. At the very least, it deeply damages, if not destroys, their primary political strategy for survival. Note the profoundly ambivalent reaction of regime henchman to the idea that Western powers might intervene – as some imagine, “on their behalf,” against the IS – a contingency that is surely coming sooner rather than later.
Having, on the one hand, pledged an interest in partnering with the UN and others in combating the IS, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on Monday declared categorical opposition to any American or international airstrikes against the group in Syria. “Any breach of Syrian sovereignty by any side constitutes an act of aggression,” he thundered.
It’s hardly surprising. Where would the Damascus regime be without the bogeyman rival that it dreamt up and tirelessly to bring into reality? Even a temporary marriage of convenience against the IS with Damascus would be entirely fraudulent, and would be undermined by the Assad dictatorship at every stage, probably even more brazenly than the chemical weapons farce.
In the end, the Catch-22 for Assad and his cronies is that the only real way to defeat the IS and similar groups is not only to crush them militarily and strangle them financially, although that is immediately necessary. No one should be interested in Syrian or Russian objections to airstrikes against IS positions on the now-erased Syrian/Iraqi border. The deeper threat is that really defeating these extremists means creating new power structures in both Syria and Iraq that give Sunni Muslim communities in those countries a stake in the future and a reason not to listen to the rantings of new “caliphates” and criminal gangs posing as saviors.
It means, in short, an end to the family, clan and sect (in that order) rule of Syria by the Assads, their relatives in the broadest sense, and their privileged Alawite community. 200,000 dead people in three years mean that the old regime, in the long run, simply cannot survive except in a rump form, and if it does, that will mean that the IS and similar groups will continue to thrive. Much the same applies in Iraq, where the Sunni minority urgently needs to be courted and included both in the new systems and in the struggle against the IS, which, on the ground, they will have to be a major part of.
Creating a new reality in which such terrorists do not run rampage will instead require building more inclusive, less repressive and more equitable structures of government in both Syria and Iraq in which the rights of Sunni Arabs are respected and lunatics are not able to pose as their protectors. That means, by definition, an end in Syria to the Assad dictatorship as we have known it.
Does anybody really imagine that the Assad dictatorship is going to be a genuine partner in its own demise? Because that’s what finally defeating the IS is going to take, and that’s what that victory is ultimately going to mean. And the regime knows it. Attacking the IS, in the long run, IS attacking Assad and his rotten, brutal dictatorship. All the more reason not to hesitate for a moment in this necessary, moral, and unavoidable war against two monstrously evil targets – the Islamic State directly and immediately, and Assad indirectly and in the long run.