The British plan to expand operations into Syria recognises that the centre of gravity for ISIS is there, not Iraq
The British government is considering beginning airstrikes into Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS). London is currently engaged in airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and has troops in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq training and advising the Peshmerga.
Since ISIS’ territory in Syria is its “most valuable and sustainable,” the case for ignoring a border that ISIS has erased would seem to be a good one.
But no less a figure than the Conservative chair of the defence select committee, Julian Lewis, thinks otherwise:
“In 2010 the government wanted to remove Assad without helping al-Qaeda or similar groups that subsequently became Daesh. Now we apparently want to remove Daesh but without helping Assad. These two things are incompatible. It is a choice of evils.”
The view that Syria is divided between the Assad dictatorship and ISIS has become commonplace. It is mistaken.
From the outset of the uprising, Assad, enabled by Iran and Russia, has worked intensely to make sectarian, Salafist forces the face of the protest movement and later the insurgency to ensure that the international community never supported it. Violent Salafi-jihadist prisoners were released from jails while secular activists were killed; sectarian atrocities were perpetrated against Sunnis designed to provoke an in-kind response that could be used to rally the minorities around the regime; the regime bought oil from al-Qaeda and ISIS but not the rebels further empowering ISIS against the rebels; and the regime directed more than 90 per cent of its firepower against the nationalist rebels, leaving ISIS alone.
The regime waged a relentless media war to say that it stood as the guardian of the minorities against the takfiri hordes, failing only to note that Assad and Iran had deliberately thrown the minorities into the way of sectarian forces they had themselves stirred up in a bid to maintain power.
Meanwhile, ISIS played along: ISIS didn’t attack Assad much more than he attacked them. Assad wanted to make Syria a binary choice between his regime and the takfiris; ISIS agreed that the only alternative to the regime should be ISIS.
This meant the primary objective of Assad and ISIS was the same: the elimination of the nationalist rebels. In short, Assad and ISIS are not dichotomous; they’re strategic collaborators.
Some Syrian rebels over-do this by saying ISIS is controlled by Assad – or Iran, since Iran controls Assad. But the crucial point from such statements is that the Syrian rebels – even the hardline Salafists – identify ISIS as a mortal enemy, an equivalent threat to the very thing they’re rebelling against, namely Assad.
There are powerful rebel groups, such as Jaysh al-Islam and even more so Ahrar a-Sham, that the West would probably find it difficult to support because their leaderships at least hold to a sectarian, Salafist vision – albeit combined with a ferocious hatred of ISIS and lack of ambition beyond Syria’s borders.
But there are many nationalist rebel groups that have already received limited Western support and could be strengthened again, which gives the lie to the notion there is only ISIS in opposition to Assad.
Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra, has been greatly empowered within the insurgency by the time and space it has been given to be the only force that came to Syria’s defence but there are signs that if given another option Syrian’s rebels would move away from Nusra.
Syrian rebels are never going to help the West against the Salafi-jihadists, however, if our offer is an un-serious train-and-equip program that only focuses on ISIS, when Assad has inflicted casualties on a scale ISIS can’t even begin to approach.
The airstrikes are quite clearly not halting ISIS’ progress. One reason is the Iraq-first nature of the anti-ISIS operation: ISIS can simply retreat to Syria and regroup. But without a ground force the airstrikes’ effect is limited.
Iranian-controlled Shi’a militias are not the answer, and the US supporting them with airstrikes in Iraq is a terrible mistake, feeding ISIS’ recruitment narrative of a US/Iranian conspiracy against Sunnis. The US effectively being the air force of Bashar al-Assad makes this worse.
The only sustainable defeats inflicted on ISIS have been by Sunni forces – the Awakening in Iraq after 2006 and the Syrian rebel offensive in January 2014. ISIS recruits and rules in the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria; to defeat ISIS local Sunnis have to be able to police themselves.
To enlist Sunnis to defeat ISIS the US has to be committed to regime-change in Syria. The Sunnis are not going to go to war against ISIS if they are going to be ruled by sectarian Iranian proxies in the aftermath.
Attacking ISIS while leaving Assad in place, and aligning with Iran and its tributaries across the region, is to remove some ISIS fighters while strengthening the very thing that helped ISIS grow to this extent. The British plan to expand operations into Syria recognises that the centre of gravity for ISIS is in Syria, not Iraq, but fails to recognize the needful sequencing: to defeat ISIS, Assad has to go first.
Committing to Assad’s downfall will give the West Sunni allies to do the hard work on the ground of uprooting the Takfiri Caliphate, which can be supported with Western Special Forces and airstrikes. Of course this also entails Westerners liberating themselves from the Assadist propaganda that if the regime falls the takfiris will run away with Syria.
Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. Follow him on Twitter