Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The battle against extremism throws Al Assad a lifeline

The Syrian regime’s effort this week to portray itself as part of an anti-terrorism coalition was rich in irony and vulgarity. At a press conference in Damascus, foreign minister Walid Al Muallem declared that Syria was ready to collaborate in the fight against terrorism, embodied by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

It was lost on no one that the regime of president Bashar Al Assad had facilitated the rise of ISIL, in large part to create the very enemy that would allow it to portray itself as a victim of terrorism. And yet Mr Muallem’s hypocrisy aside, the Syrian regime, in its efforts to survive a domestic uprising that began in 2011, has bought more valuable time to do precisely that.

The United States and Germany were quick to denounce the Syrian invitation, accusing the Assad regime of committing atrocious crimes at home and of being responsible for allowing ISIL to expand. The Obama administration responded that it would continue to work with “moderate” groups in Syria and had no intention of collaborating with the Syria authorities.

However, the Americans’ and Germans’ principles aside, an American decision to combat ISIL inside Syria may inevitably lead to implicit cooperation between the Assad regime and Washington. The reason is that air strikes are most effective in conjunction with ground forces, and there are not many places where Syrian “moderates”, in contrast to the regime’s army, could take advantage of American attacks.

Of course, the United States can bomb fixed targets to degrade ISIL’s military capabilities, and can use drones to assassinate its commanders. However, if the aim is to defeat the group, a more systematic effort to regain territory is required, and that means relying on combatants on the ground.

That is not to say that there would be concerted coordination between the United States and the Syrian military. In fact that’s unlikely to happen. However, it could mean understandings are reached, perhaps through third parties, that if attacks occur in certain areas the Syrian army could take advantage.

The refusal to legitimise Mr Al Assad has not been free of ambiguity.

Last weekend, for instance, foreign ministers from five Arab states participating in the Friends of Syria group met in Jeddah. Their purpose, as summarised in an Egyptian foreign ministry statement, was to discuss a “political solution” to the Syrian conflict after the “growth of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, which threatens regional security”.

While none of this specifically contradicted the past positions of these states, the tone seemed different. It has been some time since Arab states have spoken of a “political solution” in Syria, given that the term was used by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers to mean a solution that would include regime figures, above all Mr Al Assad.

Moreover, the linkage between a political solution and the rise of ISIL indicated that a new set of priorities existed in Syria: an end to the conflict there is necessary to address the greater regional threat posed by ISIL. This suggests that getting rid of Mr Al Assad may now be secondary.

The reference to a political solution represents, if nothing else, an admission that there is no military outcome in Syria. While one can blame western countries for hesitating to arm the Syrian rebels, and America for reversing its decision last year to bomb Mr Al Assad’s military when it used chemical weapons against civilians, Arab states have also been divided over Syria.

Jordan, one of the participants in the ministerial meeting in Jeddah, has refused to allow qualitatively better weapons supplies through its borders. It fears the opening of a southern front would destabilise the kingdom. This is understandable given the very volatile situations on Syria’s borders elsewhere.

Whether there is a similar reluctance in other Arab capitals to take risks in overthrowing Mr Al Assad is not at all clear. His regime has long sought to allow the emergence of extremist groups in the Syrian opposition in order to portray itself as a preferable alternative. The brutal repression of his own people, the Syrian president knew, would accelerate this process.

Today, however, the equation is a simple one to many foreign governments: If the Syrian regime collapses, this would leave a vacuum for ISIL to exploit.

For the group to take over Damascus would be terrifying not only to Iran and Russia, Mr Al Assad’s main supporters, but also to most Arab states and Israel. That is why western countries, even if they loathe the Syrian regime, feel they have a stake in its survival.

But does that mean Mr Al Assad has beaten the odds and will remain in office? The exhaustion of the Syrian people may help him, but after the carnage he has overseen in Syria, long-term survival is in no way guaranteed. Mr Al Assad will also need to rebuild Syria to consolidate his power. But that will require massive financial assistance that few are willing to give him.

For now at least Mr Al Assad has reached a new way-station in his efforts to remain in office. It’s called anti-terrorism. What an irony that a regime that has shown a visceral flair for terrorist behaviour should now be able to claim it as its lifeline.

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