After the tragic events in Paris last week, a more muscular strategy from France, the U.S., and other governments already involved in operations in Syria and Iraq against ISIS was both expected and necessary. In words reminiscent of the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Prime Minister François Hollande classified the ISIS attacks in Paris as “an act of war”.
From the outset of the Syrian crisis, the French government took a firm stance on Bashar al-Assad, who it saw as the main problem in Syria. When it became clear regime forces were systematically bombing the civilian population, France was the first Western state to cut ties with Damascus and recognize in 2012 the opposition Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The French government was also vocal about its willingness to use military force to establish safe zones for the Syrian opposition, under the conditions of a U.N. approval and other Western partners join in.
However, after the Paris attacks the French and other Western governments could be pushed to focus most of their military and, most importantly, political capabilities on the fight against ISIS, while wrongly heeding the arguments that Assad is a problem that can be dealt with later.
Hollande has rightly noted that Syria has become “the greatest factory of terrorists the world has ever known.” Yet that factory has a manager, Bashar al-Assad, who clearly needs retirement.Manuel Almeida
In his speech to both houses of parliament on Monday, Hollande recalled that France is “seeking resolutely, tirelessly a political solution in which Assad cannot be a part but our enemy, our enemy in Syria, is Daesh [ISIS]”.
In Western democracies, public opinion can go a long way to influence how elected governments deal with crises abroad. Particularly in the case of the Syrian conflict, the global threat represented by ISIS seems to have far more potential to shape public opinion than the refugee crisis or the more than a quarter of a million people killed in the conflict.
Assad himself knows it. "The question that is being asked throughout France today is, was France's policy over the past five years the right one? The answer is no,” he said just a day after the Paris attacks, blaming it (as ISIS did) on French foreign policy.
The notion that ISIS should be number one priority while the genocidal President of Syria is a matter to be dealt with when and if ISIS is defeated, is deeply flawed for a number of reasons beyond the obvious moral one.
The key to defeat the radical group is a government willing and able to do so and with the capacity to bring on board much of the opposition; all the Assad regime is not. Any Syria expert will tell you Assad has avoided as much as possible to confront ISIS, focusing instead the regime’s military effort on the myriad of opposition groups that are not bent on exporting jihad.
Not only that, Assad has struck deals with ISIS to buy oil and gas on the cheap from the radical group, as highlighted in a recent report by the Financial Times based on interviews with various Syrians employed in the energy sector. Thus, the regime gets the supply of energy to meet its electricity needs while providing a key source of income for the group’s terrorist activities. ISIS controls eight power plants in Syria, including three hydroelectric facilities and Syria’s largest gas plant.
In the early stages of the uprisings against his rule, Assad released hundreds of jihadists from Syria’s jails, contributing to his strategy of portraying the war as an existential battle between secular forces of moderation and fanatic religious militants. Yet for that desperate narrative to have any grounding, it would be necessary to ignore the thousands of groups and sub-groups that form the Sunni opposition. Plus, with Iranian forces and all the Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for the regime, Assad can hardly claim to be non-sectarian.
The Assad regime is also responsible for the great majority of civilian casualties, a great portion of which via its incessant campaign of airstrikes on urban areas. This has been part of the strategy to radicalize the opposition and make the urban areas not controlled by the regime are almost unlivable.
Ironically, Assad and ISIS need each other to survive. As Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington D.C., recently put it: “The key factor in the rise of ISIS in Syria has clearly been its politically symbiotic relationship with the Assad dictatorship in Damascus. On paper, these two entities despise each other and could hardly be more ideologically and politically hostile. Yet in practice, they share an overwhelming interest in ensuring that the conflict in Syria is as brutal and sectarian as possible.”
New problems, old tactics
Extreme brutality against its own population and the use of terrorism and jihadists in Syria and beyond to achieve its goals are old strategies of the Assad regime, going back to the days of Bashar’s father, Hafez.
In 1982, in the city of Hama north of Damascus, the Syrian army and security forces under the command of Hafez’s younger brother, General Rifaat al-Assad, put a brutal end to an uprising against the government led by the Muslim Brotherhood. In less than a month, at least 30.000 people were killed in Hama, the majority of them civilians.
In 2004-2005, when the investigation into the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was knocking on Bashar’s door, he encouraged Hezbollah to steer trouble in Lebanon and assassinations of anti-Syrian regime figures and bombings continued. Assad also intensified the regime-managed flow of militants to Iraq, as counterweight to the Bush doctrine and payback for the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of December 2003.
Hollande has rightly noted that Syria has become “the greatest factory of terrorists the world has ever known.” Yet that factory has a manager, Bashar al-Assad, who clearly needs retirement. Otherwise, the war against ISIS or whatever radical group emerges from its remainings is likely to last a few generations.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.
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