ISIS are allowing Assad to pose as rational and humane. This couldn't be further from the truth
With the murder of journalist Kenji Goto, ISIS have again demonstrated their carefully packaged and branded approach to terrorism. From logo to costumes, from the attention-grabbing trailing of their murders to their ‘please share’ death videos, they present perhaps the most compelling integration of marketing and political violence since the Nazis. They are the perfect terrorists from Central Casting.
But while ISIS flaunt their brutality, the greatest threat to Syrians, and consequently the greatest threat to regional stability and to European security, remains the Assad regime. In December, the Assad regime was responsible for three-quarters of all violent deaths recorded by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Amongst civilians the proportion was even higher: over 85 per cent of civilians killed in December were victims of the Assad regime.
The Assad regime is responsible for over 95 per cent of all civilian violent deaths recorded by the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria since March 2011. According to VDC figures, in the last year, over seven times as many civilians were confirmed killed by Assad air strikes as were killed by ISIS in the province of Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold.
Like ISIS, Assad also has a marketing strategy. Unlike ISIS, his strategy is not to flaunt his brutality, at least when dealing with the wider world beyond Syria. From before ISIS appeared, from the very start of peaceful protests against his dictatorship in 2011, he has claimed that all of his opponents are terrorists and has sought to portray himself as the opposite: a civilised leader in a Western businessman’s suit and tie. The contrast between his costume and those of ISIS is perfect.
For years there have been allegations from former insiders that the Assad regime deliberately brought about the rise of ISIS: from Nawaf Fares, former Syrian ambassador to Iraq; from Mohammed Habash, former member of the Syrian parliament; from Bassam Barabandi, former Syrian diplomat; from a former member of Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate.
The regime had a known history of facilitating their earlier incarnation, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and there is objective evidence that the regime avoided conflict with ISIS as they took over territory from the Free Syrian Army and associated rebel groups. Despite this, Assad’s marketing of himself as a force to counter terrorism has had an unreasonable degree of success.
It’s sadly no longer surprising when Patrick Cockburn in the Independent pitches the topsy-turvy notion that keeping Assad might help counter terrorism; nor when we see it coming from Leslie Gelb writing for the Daily Beast website – he has pushed this line before. The disturbing thing is that Gelb now claims anonymous sources in the Obama administration are telling him that Obama also buys this line.
Seeing this echoed in a New York Times editorial makes it even more unsettling, as the New York Times editorial board has for some time been a prime target of Obama administration PR efforts. For more on reactions to this, see Akbar Shahid Ahmed’s report, Springtime for Assad.
Assad may have hoped that his recent interview with Foreign Affairs magazine would be the perfect culmination of his pitch as Syria’s man of reason, a secular leader the West can do business with; but Jonathan Tepperman, the journalist who conducted the interview, begs to differ. He writes:
… he was disconcertingly good at presenting himself as a reasonable, rational actor. His critique of America’s Middle East policy, for example, is one shared by many lefties in the West: The U.S. role, he told me, should be “to help peace in the region, to fight terrorism, to promote secularism, to support this area economically” and “not to launch wars. Launching war doesn’t make you a great power.”
But behind the cheery aphorisms and the barely-there mustache is a man so unyielding and deeply deceptive – or delusional – that it’s impossible to imagine him ever negotiating an equitable end to Syria’s civil war.
Either Syria’s president is an extremely competent fabulist – in which case he’s merely a sociopath – or he actually believes his lies, in which case he’s something much more dangerous (like a delusional psychopath).
An end to Syria’s war requires an end to Assad, and an end to ISIS requires the same. Obama’s current ISIS-only strategy in Syria fails on both counts. The least the US-led coalition against ISIS should do is to make protection of civilians the priority: stop air attacks by Assad, the enabler of ISIS, and give the parts of Syria outside of Assad and ISIS control some chance of peace and stability.