Chicken-and-egg question over Syria: Assad or ISIS first?

Mohamed Chebarro

Published: Updated:

The news of the past few days was full of debate over whether the UK should extend its air strikes into Syria in its pursuit of ISIS.

After the Paris attacks, Germany and the UK were somehow pushed into action to show solidarity with their ally France.

The start of the UK air strikes came just hours after the marathon debate in parliament, in which British MPs finally voted to support David Cameron’s call to action.

To have more nations aligned in the resolve to fight ISIS should be welcomed. But in my view the strikes of a few French Rafale and British Tornado jets will do little, as long as they are part of a half-hearted Western strategy on Syria, the situation in Iraq, and the root causes that led to ISIS flourishing in those two countries and beyond.

In Syria, it should no longer be a question of which should come first, ISIS or Assad. Just like the chicken-or-egg debate, the answer is clear.

Mohamed Chebarro

Countries led by the U.S. remained idle for much of the past four years, while the Syrian people were calling for the end of the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship and his family’s ruthless 40-year rule.

The old questions

And both before and after the Paris attacks, the questions remain the same. Should we remove ISIS or Assad first - the chicken or the egg?

How is it best to alleviate the suffering, and stop regime barrel bombs destroying Syrian cities and people?

How to persuade Moscow to be a fair intermediary, and align its efforts with the international community and stop its blind support for Assad, his Iranian allies and crony Lebanese militias?

How is it best to slow the influx of refugees in the European Union? Is it by giving Turkey’s Erdogan billions of dollars to control the floodgates, or by finding a quota to distribute the refugees fairly across Europe?

Should we close extremist mosques in European cities, and deport dual-nationals to their native countries? Or should we regenerate those European suburbs where extremism and hate crimes flourish along with the poverty and unemployment faced by many second-generation Muslims?

All of these questions are important. But answering them - just like making the resolve to bomb ISIS targets in Syria - will do little to change the situation, unless the world comes together to face the crisis in Syria collectively.

Why Syria?

Undoing the evil brutality of the Assad regime will bring light at the end of the tunnel for the Syrian people, half of whom are displaced.

By driving forward a political settlement to the Syrian crisis, there could be an opportunity to reignite a modus vivendi – or agreement to disagree – between the U.S. and Russia.

In so doing maybe the EU would revisit the sanctions against Russia that were imposed after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

Iran too would be tested by the removal of Assad, especially in light of the nuclear deal with the West. Is Tehran a regional player interested in stability, rather than a power prone to lighting the fuse in neighboring countries and then posing as a bona fide fire fighter?

Should Assad be removed and Syria’s unity and plurality insured, Saudi Arabia will have more time to continue its long fight against extremists in the heart of its society and the wider Muslim world.

And a deal for a united multi-ethnic Syria will appease the Turks, given their worries over the alternative possibility of an Alawite mini-state and Kurdish autonomous region right on its borders.

A solution in Syria would also drive further Iraqi reform to share power, and clip back on the sectarian politics that alienate its Sunni Arabs and Kurdish population.

A united front

A lot was said in the UK parliamentary debate. But the words of shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn captured the picture best. In urging the need for air strikes, in defiance of his Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Benn said the UK is “faced by fascists”, before adding of his own party: “We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road.”

Benn evoked the values that Western democracies have been spreading for decades, and the importance of defeating ISIS, just as fascism and Nazism were defeated before.

And, in my opinion, the quickest way to do that is by finding a solution in Syria that involves the removal of Assad – which, in so doing, would remove the toxic environment in which ISIS spreads.

In Syria, it should no longer be a question of which should come first, ISIS or Assad. Just like the chicken-or-egg debate, the answer is clear.

A united front and major diplomatic effort or summit is needed to convince everybody that the time has come to do away with the Assad regime, and with it ISIS and all the forces bent on destroying the world as we know it today.

Unfortunately, I doubt the Obama administration is likely to produce such leadership. For Putin’s action in Syria has humbled his outlook – making any future meeting on Assad’s fate look even less likely.

Mohamed Chebarro is currently an Al Arabiya TV News program Editor. He is also an award winning journalist, roving war reporter and commentator. He covered most regional conflicts in the 90s for MBC news and later headed Al Arabiya’s bureau in Beirut and London.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.