ISIS: The Assad Dilemma

Published: September 8, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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Like many, I was sickened and repulsed by the single still images that came out of somewhere in Syria of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff before each was savagely beheaded by a member of ISIS, or ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), an extremist group so devoted to hate and heinous acts of terror that even Al Qaeda disassociates themselves from them.

The Obama Administration has labeled ISIL a threat not only to the region of Iraq and Syria but America, Britain and neighboring countries. However, according to a recent New York Times story (Aug. 22), “The escalating confrontation between Mr. Assad’s forces and ISIS is another indication of just how much the rise of the radical group has erased borders and upended alliances around the region, and the world. President Obama, who has long called for the ouster of Mr. Assad, is facing similar pressure to attack ISIS inside Syria after his top military adviser said the group cannot otherwise be defeated.”

This has brought about a depressing and difficult dilemma for the Administration and prompted a Room for Debate discussion in the New York Times (Aug.22): Having tried to remove Assad from power in Syria because of the killing of his own people and continued threat to the region, should we partner with him now in an effort to defeat ISIL?

Max Abrahms, a professor of public policy at Northwestern University, writes, “The case against aligning with Assad might seem obvious…. But from a national security perspective, Washington has a greater obligation to defend American civilians, even if that means working alongside the Alawite dictator. The nature of this cooperation could vary from uncoordinated airstrikes to joint operations.

“Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged, ‘can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no.’ Our national security ultimately depends on crushing ISIS not only in Iraq, but also in Syria.”

Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow for global energy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, points out that “The immediate military objectives to defeat ISIS should be limited to Iraq. There is plenty to do there to reverse the group’s momentum. An international coalition is being built and it must work with local forces to secure recent victories. Over time, the Iraqi-Syrian border must be sealed, starting on the Iraqi side. But ISIS cannot be defeated without destroying its sanctuary in Syria. It is here where diplomatic action is crucial. …

“The realization that no leader is indispensable will not be lost on Assad. The surge of ISIS is not a good thing for him. Quite the contrary – its surge and America’s response may mean that Assad’s days in power are numbered.”

Bronson offers an interesting perspective, but when has diplomatic action worked with Assad in the past, and could he be trusted with any partnership agreement in the short term?

Hassan Hassan, an analyst at the Delma Institute, a research center in Abu Dhabi, UAE, seems to offer a more practical reality, albeit difficult approach.

“The idea that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be a partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, ignores a basic fact: Assad has been key to its rise in Syria and beyond. When Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, the first province to fall under rebels’ control in its entirety, it was remarkable that the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.

“If Assad genuinely wants to fight ISIS today, he is as capable of doing that as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was when ISIS took over three Iraq provinces. ISIS controls large swathes in rebel-held Syria, areas that have been outside the regime’s control for one to three years. How could the Assad regime fight against ISIS in Raqqa or Deir Ezzor, for example? Would the local population fight side by side with the regime? That is extremely unlikely, given that people have condemned reports that the United States intends to strike against ISIS in Syria while ignoring the regime’s atrocities for more than three years.

“A more prudent approach is to look at the rise of ISIS as a long-term menace that can only be addressed through a ground-up pushback. The opposition forces are not only possible partners, they’re essential in the fight against ISIS. After all, they’re the ones who have been fighting ISIS since last summer, and drove it out of Idlib, Deir Ezzor and most of Aleppo and around Damascus. It cost them dearly: more than 7,000 people were killed. Fighting ISIS should be part of a broader political and military process that includes both the regime and the opposition, but not Assad.”

My question to Hassan: how do you work with the Syrian regime and exclude Assad? Is that even possible?

Clearly, strong, decisive and prolonged action needs to be taken against ISIS who, just as clearly, is bent on killing as many Americans and others as possible no matter the cost to the region.

Further complicating the calculus is the increasing number of foreign fighters fighting with ISIS. According to a recent (Sept. 4) ABC News report, there are at least a dozen Americans fighting alongside ISIS. These disaffected individuals should have their passports revoked and kept under surveillance. In fact, any American who travels to countries where known terrorist groups reside need to be thoroughly vetted regarding their business in the region.

Finally, as President Obama has already begun, the U.S. needs to maximize efforts to strengthen ties with NATO allies to educate and share information with the clear understanding that if ISIS defeats the U.S., guess who’s next?

While some kind of short-term partnership with the Assad regime may be necessary, (no option should be taken off the table), the U.S. needs to focus on a strategy to motivate ALL 27 additional member nations of NATO to act as one, both militarily and financially against the threat of ISIS. Only by working together can we succeed in defeating this philosophy of abject hate.


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