Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Will ISIS prolong Assad’s rule? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page
Media ID: 55335670

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on July 16, 2014, shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad being sworn in for a new seven-year term, during a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Damascus. (AFP PHOTO / HO / SANA)

The welcome extended by Syrian state media to the US airstrikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its subsequent remarks about Washington being in one trench with the Syrian government forces may seem a ridiculous and embarrassing joke to Washington. But indeed it reflects how ISIS has changed the course of events in the Syrian war, shaking up regional alliances and positions. Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is without doubt benefiting from US strikes against ISIS, and is pleased with the international coalition’s stated objective of eliminating the Islamist organization. True, the international coalition’s strategy does not necessarily aim to help the Syrian government, but it cannot prevent Damascus seeking to capitalize on the campaign. Damascus is taking advantage of this issue both politically and in terms of the struggle for global public opinion, with the aim of promoting the notion that the US is fighting alongside it against terrorism.

The true turning point would be when—if the various interpretations made on the basis of the developments on the ground were true—the US administration reviews its stance on Syria, and actually slows down the process of toppling Assad. Washington is concerned about the vacuum created after the disintegration of the Syrian opposition and the growing influence of “Islamist” movements that, along with ISIS, control most of the rebel-held territory. There are some who are of the opinion that keeping the Syrian regime in power will be less harmful than seeing the country fall to the hands of extremist organizations, as ISIS continues to extend its influence on the ground and attract fighters from every direction. Some Western countries—those that do not hide their concern over the return of war-hardened fighters exposed to radicalism and the culture of slaughter and suicide operations—hold the same belief.

For over two years the Western strategy in Syria has been to dismantle the Syrian regime and maintain the structure of the state. But the opposite has happened. Syria has been completely destroyed in a long, costly war and foreign fighters have been allowed into the country with the aim of toppling Assad from power. It was in light of this strategy that armed groups, particularly Islamist ones, grew in size and strength, leading to the creation of the monster that is ISIS. Before this shift took place on the ground, some Western officials were working to unite the Syrian opposition’s ranks, pushing them into adopting a unified political vision and training them on how to run the affairs of the areas under their control and at the same time building public support by giving residents the services they used to get from the government. The idea was that the Syrian opposition—with military, financial and technological support from the West—should seek to tighten its control on areas under its control and set up local councils to reconstruct the infrastructure to secure the return of refugees. Budgets were allotted to these councils in order to offer services and create jobs so that the opposition would gradually replace the government in these areas. In other words, the aim was to restore the structure of the state without reinstating the regime, disassociating Assad’s regime from the Syrian state.

The strategy—accompanied by the presence of Western “volunteers” offering humanitarian services and expertise to the opposition—was going reasonably well until ISIS emerged, taking control of several areas and reshuffling the cards. ISIS fought other opposition factions, including Islamist ones, more than it fought government forces. The irony is that ISIS used the very same strategy as the West, setting out to create local councils and offering services in the areas it controls while it rushed to declare its own “Islamic” state. On the other hand, the West seemed to be confused about how to deal with ISIS after its strategy in Syria collapsed. The equation on the ground changed after ISIS’s emergence, adding a third side to the initial two rivals—the government and the opposition. The “moderate” opposition has vanished today and one barely hears about it as ISIS and news of its progress on the ground dominates the scene. It annoys the West that ISIS has succeeded in attracting fighters from other opposition groups, including Islamist ones that were previously described as “moderate.”

There are many question marks over the west’s strategy in Syria, and how ISIS can be defeated and alternative opposition factions rebuilt. Achieving these objectives requires time and new tactics, which means that the toppling of Assad may be delayed by the West. Syria may be of more significance than Iraq to the West because chaos in the Mediterranean country will affect Israel, which has enjoyed calm along its northeastern border for over 40 years. Since it is no secret that preserving the security of Israel is a key part of US strategy, it will not be hard to conclude that Washington, in terms of its fight against ISIS and in its view of the Syrian conflict, does not want unforeseen developments that worry Israel.

ISIS has definitely tipped the balance, but not in favor of the opposition. Perhaps this is just one more of the ironies that has resulted from the rise of this bizarre group.