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Opinion: Assad’s ISIS Gambit II | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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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)

As was expected, and as I predicted in an article last week, the Assad regime rushed to try and exploit the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to serve its own interests. This time, it was Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mouallem who announced that Damascus was ready to cooperate with the international community to fight ISIS. However, and in the same statement, Mouallem warned that US airstrikes targeting ISIS, without first coordinating with the Assad regime, constituted “aggression,” as if Bashar Al-Assad and ISIS are one and the same (which in reality is true).

What is striking is that Mouallem’s statement coincided with one from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calling for coordination with the relevant countries. He said that the West must choose between regime change and combating terrorism. But this is a ploy; the West did not take any action against ISIS in Iraq until after requiring the departure of Iraq’s outgoing Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki—and that is indeed what happened. So why should Assad, who is far more criminal than Maliki, be rewarded? In any case, Germany rushed to announce its rejection of cooperation with Assad, while Britain had previously announced the same. Statements from Washington had also indicated this, while the Friends of Syria meeting held in Syria also rejected cooperation with Assad.

Therefore, the most important question we must now ask is: how can we combat ISIS? Of course, this requires more than one approach. First, we need to acknowledge that the battle against ISIS must be fought simultaneously on both the Iraqi and Syrian fronts. In Iraq, we need to speed up the pace of political reform and see the formation of a new government as soon as possible. Simultaneously, Baghdad must revive the Sunni Awakening Councils, which previously successfully fought Al-Qaeda, and provide them with arms. We must also see the arming of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to combat ISIS. We must ensure that all these forces—in addition to the Iraqi military and security apparatus itself—have the capability to fight ISIS on the ground, backed up by aerial cover. The ultimate goal, following the routing of ISIS, must be to restructure the Iraqi army and establish a professional national guard that contains these Awakening Councils and the Peshmerga in order to guarantee the neutrality of the military apparatus, ensuring that it does not fall prey to sectarian games again, as it did under Maliki.

As for Syria, we must quickly arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with sophisticated weaponry that ensures it is able to compete both with ISIS and Assad’s militias on the ground. We must provide the FSA with anti-aircraft capabilities to neutralize Assad’s warplanes, as well as carry out strikes against ISIS. This will allow the FSA to secure its presence on the ground and take back the areas it lost to ISIS fighters.

This represents the best option with regards to fighting ISIS, rather than cooperating with the criminal Assad regime.

What about Iran? What must be done there, particularly after the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, was removed from his post as Iran’s man in Iraq and redeployed to Syria. It is pretty clear Iran believes it is the Americans who are going to lead the battle against ISIS in Iraq, and that is why they took the decision to sideline Suleimani, moving him to Syria where he can devote himself to protecting Assad. As such, a pincer movement against ISIS on two fronts would leave Tehran facing one of two options: either to negotiate over abandoning Assad, or to find itself on the same side as ISIS—which would be political suicide.