Assad’s Trap for the West

Assad and ISIS appear to be perfect opposites. In reality, however, they are rather complementary. Whatever aspirations one may have for a cooperation with the regime, neither an end to the war nor safety will be gained through it.

Amid the general helplessness in the West, voices to approve a cooperation with Bashar al-Assad are becoming stronger. According to them, the violations of human rights under the Syrian regime are of secondary importance in light of the threat posed by ISIS. Therefore they believe the strategic interest to defeat Islamic extremists must take priority. However, a collaboration with Assad would not only compromise the credibility of Western value-discourses - it would simply not lead to the desired results.

With the formation of ISIS, the nightmare conjured up by Assad from the very beginning of the Syrian revolution has become reality. The terror militia not only challenges the territorial unity of Syria and the borders in the region, but could also put security in the West at risk through the return of jihadists to Europe or the US.

Assad and ISIS appear to be perfect opposites. In reality, however, they are rather complementary. Assad is in urgent need of an enemy like ISIS, an enemy that is universally met with loathing, an enemy that seems to prove Assad’s distorted version of Syrian reality true. As is well known, Assad claims he is not confronted with a legitimate rebellion of the Syrian people against his tyranny, but rather with terrorists who are backed from abroad. It is convenient that ISIS simultaneously takes action against Assad’s other opponents and selectively weakens them. At the same time, ISIS has up to this point in time made no serious attempts to overthrow Assad. The terror militia only seeks confrontation with the regime at selected strategic points, such as Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria – and has to date largely emerged as the victor from these battles.

Whilst Assad did not succeed when faced with ISIS, in January 2014 the Free Syrian Army was successful in re-conquering parts of the territories ISIS had formerly captured. It is clearly not the Syrian military that commends itself as a strong ally in the battle against ISIS. Equally, these considerations disregard that an alliance with Assad would invigorate the impression that the West is not declaring war on a militia, but rather on the entirety of Sunnis.

And there are questions to be asked: Would the West and Assad be able to agree on common objectives in the fight against ISIS? For what appears to the West as an undesirable by-product of the Syrian revolution is Assad’s guarantee for survival. Whilst the West is primarily concerned about restricting the conflict and confining it to a local scale, Assad knows that his regime is only interesting as a partner to the West as long as Western interests seem threatened. Hence Assad’s objective is actually to maintain the threat posed by ISIS outside of Syria.

Patterns of Syrian Foreign Policy

 It is characteristic of Syrian foreign policy to operate a two-pronged approach. Alongside the official external relations, the regime traditionally supports non-state armed players. Already following 9/11, the regime offered to be a partner in the “war on terror”. This lip service did however not stop it from organising the recruitment of jihadists in the region whose route to Iraq led them through Syria between 2003 and 2006. Prior to this other groups had also, under the strict surveillance of intelligence services, been permitted to act at their discretion. Sole requirement: their actions had to be geared towards other states. The Damascus doctrine is: sustain your own power by causing your neighbours problems. The regime would be only too pleased to be consulted in the resolution of the conflict fuelled by itself: the infamous arsonist posing as a firefighter.

Whilst Hafez al-Assad supressed the Kurds in Syria itself, the regime also supported the PKK for years. Only the convincing threat made by Turkey in 1998 caused for Assad to cave in temporarily. The ensuing improvement of Syrian-Turkish relations led the Turkish prime minister at the time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to believe he could act as an intermediary between the opposition and the regime at the beginning of the revolution in 2011. Assad responded with clear rejection. Instead, he reinstated the cooperation with the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK, at the onset of the revolution. The Syrian regime does not believe in giving anything in return for cooperation and support from the outside after it has reached its own goals.

Even in the unlikely case that a rehabilitation with Assad was successful, a true end to the actual conflict would not be in sight – the conflict between the Syrian regime and the Syrian people. The West would be ill-advised to believe that Assad, after receiving support in the battle against ISIS, would consider sharing or even surrendering power.

In defence of Assad and the strength of his regime it is often argued that he, three years after the onset of the revolution, has still not been overthrown. But is it a sign of strength that, despite being equipped with the largest army in the Arab world, vast parts of the country have been lost to the ill-equipped Free Syrian Army? The Syrian air force has been operating constantly since 2012. Close to half of the Syrian population is on the run and entire urban quarters and towns have been destroyed, which means an almost ghostly battle is fought in many places. And yet, the regime has trouble holding its ground.

The recapturing of locations, for instance Qalamoun near the Lebanese border, is only possible with the assistance of foreign fighters: the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iranian and Iraqi militias and since some months more and more Afghans who are forcefully recruited by Iran. The Syrian army is now merely a shadow of its former self. Already in March 2013, the London International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) stated that the Syrian military had shrunk to half of its original size. The rest: dead, defected, gone home. That is why, even in areas controlled by the regime, Assad is becoming more and more dependent on irregular armed forces, Shabiha or “vigilante groups”, who plague the population and supplement their earnings by looting.

Whilst the West is rightfully concerned about the murky power relations in the freed areas, it loses sight of the uncontrolled developments of non-state armed protagonists acting on behalf of the regime. It refuses to see that, while the coalition targets ISIS through air raids, the regime bombs other rebels all the more. Their resilience subverts Assad’s version, a black and white picture in which the conflict is between his secular regime and irrational extremists. For this reason Assad primarily attacks moderate opposition forces, not ISIS.

Extremists whose agenda surpasses Syria’s borders form the narrow basis on which the Syrian regime can advocate itself to the West. Insofar Assad is the most unsuitable ally imaginable against ISIS. Whatever aspirations one may have for a cooperation with the regime: neither an end to the conflict nor security and stability will be achieved this way.

A German version of this article was first published in the "ipg-journal".