By Michael Young
February 12, 2015
Bashar Assad’s smugness in a series of recent interviews may be justified. As the Syrian president looks around him, he sees that several regional developments are going his way. Whether this means his regime is saved is another question, but for the first time in four years his barbaric policies appear to be paying off. Assad’s efforts in 2011 to depict the uprising against his rule as no more than the work of armed terrorist gangs have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Syrian regime helped assure that extremists would gain control of the revolt and turn it into a sectarian conflict. Today, even Arab countries opposed to Assad have made the campaign against ISIS a priority, undermining the primacy of the struggle against a brutal Syrian regime.
Terrorism is the new catchword and has fragmented those opposed to Assad. Egypt, though it has close ties with Saudi Arabia, has taken a different tack from Riyadh. When President Mohammad Morsi was overthrown in 2013, Egypt’s new military regime re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus, which Morsi had suspended. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has his own terrorism problem in Sinai, and this week he hosted one of Assad’s main backers, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who seeks to benefit from tensions between Cairo and Washington and is pushing his own peace plan for Syria.
Assad must also be delighted with the very visible shift in American attitudes. While U.S. officials continue to mouth the line that “Assad must go,” the reality is that the Obama administration prefers Assad to the unknown. Moreover, even if it will not admit it, the U.S. knows that ground forces are necessary as it tries to “defeat” ISIS, and for better or worse that means Assad’s forces in certain areas of Syria.
Beyond that Washington has increasingly adopted a position favourable to Iran in the Middle East, reassuring it that the United States does not intend to weaken Iranian allies in Iraq and Syria. To put it bluntly, the Americans prefer Qasem Soleimani and Hasan Nasrallah to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Even in Yemen the administration’s reaction to the Houthi takeover has been subdued, with the U.S. focused on pursuing its anti-terrorism operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
As for Lebanon, the U.S. has just dispatched new weaponry, including heavy artillery, to the Lebanese Army, to better fight Jihadi groups along the border with Syria. Beyond this, the “anti-terrorism” rubric means that Lebanon is now effectively a player in the Syrian conflict in Qalamoun. That is precisely the situation into which both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah had sought to push the Army, as they put the squeeze on rebel supply lines between Lebanon and Qalamoun.
Assad has also benefited from the errors of his enemies. The more moderate Syrian opposition early on failed to grasp how the growing power of the Nusra Front and ISIS would radically transform perceptions of the uprising in Syria. While it warned of how the Syrian regime would exploit the “anti-terrorism” argument, it failed to adequately prepare for this.
This week, the decision of Zahran Alloush, head of the opposition Islam Army, to bomb Damascus only further played into the regime’s hands, as his forces targeted civilian areas. Most media outlets focused on the bombing, ignoring the vicious regime retaliation against civilians in eastern Ghouta.
Perhaps the greatest loser has been Turkey, accused today of collaborating with ISIS. In his zeal to oust Assad, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his country into a passage for Jihadis entering Syria. The repercussions were dramatic during the siege of Ain al-Arab and, especially, after the wife of French Jihadi Amedy Coulibaly fled to Syria via Turkey. As a result the Turkish authorities have been forced to tighten border controls, while Erdogan’s reputation has suffered greatly.
If Assad were to survive politically, it would rewrite international rules of behaviour. Until recently many Western governments pompously declared that “there is no room” for leaders who engage in the mass murder of populations. However, who can believe such nonsense when Assad has been engaging in widespread slaughter for almost four years, with no concerted reaction from the international community.
If ISIS cruelty merits a military response – and it does – then the infinitely more numerous crimes of the Assad regime do as well. Rare are the atrocities that the regime has not committed, from slaughtering women and children to firing chemical weapons and ballistic missiles into civilian areas to using starvation tactics. But Assad has gotten away with all this, even as Obama has reassured Iran that the Syrian leader is safe.
The injustice of this attitude will have repercussions. ISIS and the Nusra Front have perpetrated terrible atrocities, but the global indifference to Syrian suffering, alongside a prevailing sense in the region that a sectarian regime has been given free rein to crush Syria’s Sunnis, has proven a valuable recruitment tool for them. Only a blind man would fail to see the intrinsic link between Assad’s terror methods and the appeal of the Jihadis.
This means that even if Assad remains in office, the Jihadis will retain significant mobilizing power. But the United States seems oblivious to this, so determined is Obama to avoid taking any position on Assad’s future. The U.S. war against ISIS has only one component, a military dimension, while neglecting a broader approach to avert the rise of new Jihadi groups. So, while Assad can be satisfied with the alignment of factors in his favour, Syria will remain unstable for a long time to come.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.