Assad dials the West from Palmyra: Let’s talk ISIS?
From Palmyra, Assad is flirting with Europe and trying to seduce its intelligence and political class...
The recapture of Palmyra by the Assad regime forces from ISIS this week, 10 months after its fall, has two major connotations. Primarily the strategic location of the ancient city puts Assad at a geographical advantage to go after ISIS in Deir Zour and reconnect the routes with Iraq and Iran. But more importantly, defeating ISIS in the birth land of Queen Zenobia six days after the Brussels attacks, signals to the West that Assad and his strong backer Russian President Vladimir Putin could reemerge as partners against ISIS terrorism.
From Palmyra, Assad is flirting with Europe and trying to seduce its intelligence and political class to break his isolation and open channels on fighting ISIS, while turning a blind eye to his killing machine against Syrian civilians and the opposition. This equation could find echo in Europe and amongst an elite that sees counterterrorism as the only priority in Syria. It is however, shortsighted and might end up backfiring in the long term by strengthening ISIS, the same way that the policies of marginalization in Iraq led to its rebirth in 2014.
Assad flirting with Europe
The timing of the Palmyra operation cannot be seen in isolation of the Brussels attacks last week. The Assad strategists, who have long managed to maintain a channel of intelligence cooperation with the West and the United States despite their authoritative record at home and foreign policy differences, jumped at the opportunity to reemerge as a partner against ISIS.
Backed by the Russian air force, and following the severe blow that Moscow dealt to the moderate rebels in the last six months, the message from Palmyra was that only the Assad regime is capable of fighting ISIS in Syria, and that it’s time for the Europeans to jump ship and resume Intel cooperation with the dictator. While publicly many Europeans will shy away from embracing this strategy and insist on a political solution, Assad is forcing himself as a fait accompli, as the negotiations struggle and the moderate rebels suffer logistically and militarily.
The Assad regime that has built its survival on buying time and outlasting the skeptics, is wooing Europe to take him as a potential partner against ISISJoyce Karam
Many European delegations have visited Assad as recent as this week and chatter from Paris to Berlin about resuming cooperation with his regime started last year. For Europe, its safety and sharing intelligence on ISIS comes ahead of any other priority in Syria. While dancing with the Putin and Assad will damage Europe’s credibility, it is not unforeseeable that the leaders of the old continent will hand the keys to Putin in Syria in order to buy their security and force a lid on refugee flow.
If Europe flirts back with Assad, it won’t be the first time for such reversal. In the aftermath of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri killing in 2005, Assad suffered international isolation and was dealt new sanctions for his regime’s alleged role in Lebanon’s and Iraq’s instability. This isolation loosened dramatically when French President Nicholas Sarkozy reopened channels with the regime and received him in Paris in 2008. With more than 250,000 dead, Assad will unlikely be in Paris anytime soon, but his flirtations with Europe could revive intelligence sharing against ISIS while ignoring the political stalemate in Syria.
Partnering with Assad to fight ISIS is almost equivalent to partnering with an arsonist to set off the fire it had a major role in creating. Defeating ISIS cannot happen in the absence of a political process that addresses the roots of its rise, found in policies of suppressing dissent and bloody crackdowns that have long composed the playbook of Assad and other dictators.
Judging by Iraq, bandages in the shape of military operations that are not accompanied by political processes ultimately fail the test of time against ISIS. The group successfully reemerged in 2014 despite the so-called military defeats by Washington and former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki against it in 2006-2008. It was the misguided policies of Maliki driven by a sectarian agenda and feeding off a regional proxy war, that reignited ISIS’ support and allowed it to take over Mosul two years ago.
From Mosul to Brussels to Palmyra, ISIS has many Godfathers and none of them can exclusively be trampled militarily. The regional divide, internal dysfunction in Syria and Iraq, as well as Europe’s own marginalization and radicalization problem requires political strategies, that won’t be embraced by Assad because they would lead to his relinquish of a four-decade-old power hold. Such political strategy will also ring hollow in the midst of regional proxy war that seeks increasing influence and not fighting ISIS.
For now, the Assad regime that has built its survival on buying time and outlasting the skeptics, is wooing Europe to take him as a potential partner against ISIS. While it is tempting for global leaders to turn the page on the Syrian war and return to the status quo ante, such path is doomed to fail. It can only temporarily choke off ISIS while promising a more vicious return for the group or a similar phenomenon under the same political circumstances.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam