To enlist Sunnis to defeat ISIS we must commit to regime-change in Syria

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

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38 Responses to “To enlist Sunnis to defeat ISIS we must commit to regime-change in Syria”

  1. Richard Yot

    The trouble with regime change is that it never, ever goes well.

  2. Unhiddenness

    This is jibberish.

  3. Al

    Utter madness.

  4. JoeDM

    We should be supporting the Syrian government in their fight against islamofascism.

  5. Matthew Blott

    Kyle Orton recently had a piece cross posted at Harry’s Place which was a hagiographic review of the neoconservative Stephen F. Hayes’s decade old ‘The Connection’ – a propaganda piece for the Bush regime regurgitating the lies put out by Cheney et al about the tenuous links between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq regime and Al-Qaeda (links the Bush regime could not find despite putting all the resources at its disposal in its desperation to prove such a link). This suggested to me someone who had drank too much of the neocon Kool aid and caution was advised when reading. But Kyle Orton is well regarded by people I follow and speak with on Twitter (including the editor of this website) so I thought perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick in rushing to judgement. Indeed, as an assessment of the situation and description of the various actors involved it’s pretty good. It also poses the question about what to do and the lack of clear binary choices. I’m not sure about the conclusion – a full commitment to regime change of the Assad regime. What does the author mean by that? The Iraq War was over a dozen years ago and the fallout is still with us – is that the sort of timescale we are talking about here?

    The Syrian civil war is as big a mess as anything in my lifetime, the carnage is depressing, I don’t like sitting idly by while it continues and there are things that can be done by the West. I supported the war in Afghanistan but was sceptical on Iraq because the lack of international support although not a reason to oppose war in itself meant it would be hard to sustain (and boy how right that turned out to be). I thought Ed Miliband disgraced himself and the Labour party with his politicking over the Syria vote in Parliament but I’m still not sure how I would have voted myself. I don’t believe doing something is better than doing nothing if there is no clear outcome – even arming the Kurds (which I am inclined to support) isn’t without risks (how will Turkey react?). At the moment I see more profit in putting pressure on the actors in the region we (supposedly) have influence over (Saudi, Qatar and possibly Turkey) than getting involved ourselves.

  6. RobotNick

    Kyle Orton is completely right. From a practical point of view Assad has not a hope in hell of driving Daesh out of Syria, or even significantly eroding its territory – even with all the help Iran & Hezbollah might give him. His fundamental problem is demographic. Only the 10% Alawite minority have offered him solid support and they have been worn down by casualties and many Alawite men are now trying to avoid military service.

    Assad has committed vastly too many crimes to have any hope of gaining any significant support from within the majority Sunni community.

    Only the Sunnis are in a position to remove Daesh, and that means only the rebels. The question then is not whether to back Assad or the rebels, but which rebel groups to back.

    The idea that Assad could be a viable partner in the war against Daesh is a hopeless delusion.

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  8. Charbel Baroud

    100% agree. Anyone who still believes that Assad is battling ISIS is living in a fantasy.

  9. Christopher Corvino

    so in other words support one form of Fascism over another. Great thinking ya got there.

  10. JoeDM

    It is a choice between two bad alternatives. We need to support whatever is best for the west.

    Assad, like other middle-eastern dictators who have now been removed, is a buffer against expansionist islamofascism.

  11. JoeDM

    The whole ‘Arab Spring’ has been an utter disaster.

  12. Asteri

    There are two issues here. Firstly, the real enabler of ISIS is the Gulf Arab-Turkish-Sunni extremist axis that who have been trying relentlessly to overflow the Syrian government for the last 4 years, the fact they have not succeeded might say something more about the Syrians and their resolve? Assad did not just wake up one morning and decide to destroy his country and massacre his population as the western interventionist propaganda would have us believe. There is also a deliberate misunderstanding of military tactics. It surely makes the most military sense to go for the weaker rebels – destroy them and stabilize the situation rather than to go after the more powerful ISIS which would have incurred way more military losses and put the regime under huge pressure. The tactic seems to have been to lure ISIS in to the point of scaring the west in to action against them and to stop the Gulf oil monarchies and Turkey from backing them. So far though the west – once so committed to fighting terror has just let ISIS murder and destroy everything in its path and commit genocide; all without any action. Obama has only just days ago stopped sending military support to the Kobane Kurds fighting ISIS.

    The second point is the Israelis, the only serious state military in the region, they’re inaction over the last four years is very telling, had they wanted to see Assad overthrown they could have intervened against him or at least put military pressure on him to more troops to the Israeli border. But they have done nothing but watch from the sidelines, which might make clear that they don’t actually want him gone even if he is Iran’s closest regional ally or at least they are were waiting to judge the situation and decided he was better.

  13. Christopher Corvino

    Assad has done more to generate support for Isis and Nusra then all the Isis/Nusra leaders could ever have done on there own with his heavy handed scorched earth tactics.

  14. Jim bo

    Yes I do. I supprt the form of fascism that keeps your little jihadists minions in check.

  15. Jim bo

    You just like seeing innocent kurds and Christians get killed by ISIS. If assad was in power he’d be protecting them again. You hate that dont you

  16. Jim bo

    He’s ignoring them because they are paid warriors from turkey. They are just funded by the west. Are you mad because he didnt buy into your plan?

  17. Jim bo

    Yea but most people want to see jihadists cutting heads off because its “liberating”

    Assad is the man and has kept that country save from jihad till turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, isreal and the US teamed up on him and set ISIS loose

  18. Jim bo

    What a ridiculous title for this artile.. it should be “to defeat ISIS who are sunni wahhabisists, we need to finish off Assad so we can count on different sunni wahhabisists to fight ISIS” haha. Yea double down on stupidity

  19. Jim bo

    How is Assad a bad alternative? I bet you never even knew who Assad was till the west set ISIS loose on him

  20. Jim bo

    No but ten years from now our politicians will admit that removing Assad was a bad idea. Then the cycle will continue and they will go mess something else up

  21. Jim bo

    If you people want a regime change, set your sights on north Korea. Leave Assad alone. I’d say leave gaddafe alone too but its a little late for that. Now look at the region. It’s back to the dark ages.

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  23. OneWoman

    Ah yes, “Islamofascism” – favourite Daily Mail phrase of the day. The dusky Muslim savages are innately violent and must be kept down by ‘civilised’ satraps. And Nick Griffin and all the European neo-nazis agree too – it’s like a mind-meld between totalitarianism groupies of all descriptions – after 12 years and counting of the endless war of terror, Assad and the various other dictators know how to play on the West’s deep-rooted Orientalist racism like a violin.

  24. Christopher Corvino

    not a jihadist or even Muslim numb nuts. I’m just telling it like it is. Its your problem if you don’t like hearing the truth.

  25. Jim bo

    Either way you look at it.. the US government is giving hundreds of millions of dollars to terrorists in Libya and Syria with a mission of overthrowing Assad.

  26. Jim bo

    Christopher likes the fact that US government gives hundreds of millions of dollars to sunni terrorists to overthrow Assad.

    Then he likes to double down on the lies and say that Assad is working with the very same terrorists that are trying to kill him.

    So that way you have two firewalls of lies and excuses, to further turn that country into a hell hole by removing Assad

    Long live Assad the terrorist killer

  27. Christopher Corvino

    Kid while i’m not syrian or Muslim i have syrian relatives on my dad side including an uncle who was killed not from any so called terrorist rebels but from one of Assads barrel Bombs. No he wasn’t fighting for anyone he just wanted to stay out of it. He used up what money he had to get his family out of syria and so had to stay behind. His only crime was being poor and happening to live in Homs a city that the syrian government and not the rebels demolished. So stop talking like you know me cause ya don’t!

  28. Christopher Corvino

    There is no denying that during the Iraq war Assad supported militant groups like isil in Iraq cause at the time they were fighting the american occupation. Now he and his people r paying for it. Assad and Isis r 2 sides of the same Fascist coin. And just because they r fighting each other now doesn’t change that.

  29. Jim bo

    Sorry for your loss but dont blame Assad for fighting back.

    Blame Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the U.S. for sending the jihadists to destabilize the country in the first place.

    Your relatives were much safer when Assad was large and in charge. Same with People from Libya when gaddafe had their back.

    The US has send hundreds of millions of dollars and millions of tons of weapons into the region alone. Your family wouldn’t have been caught in the cross fire, hadn’t the west teamed up on a sovereign dictatorship. It was peaceful before that.

  30. Jim bo

    The Iraq army and saddam was a buffer zone to keep terrorist away from syria.

    When the U.S. destabilized iraq, it was an indirect attack on Assad too.

    I dont arge the fact he probably funded terrorists against the Americans during an illegal war. I dont blame him.

  31. Christopher Corvino

    Yet when he commits war crimes and helps fuel an islamic insurgency by giving his victims no alternatives but to join them its all good to you right?

  32. Christopher Corvino

    Make whatever excuse you like. It don’t change the fact he funded terrorists. Many of which killed far more Iraqi’s then coalition soldiers.

  33. Jim bo

    Well then keep your fingers crossed that Assad falls.

    Im sure a bunch of murdering terrorists will make sure its a great place to live from now on. Lol.

  34. Christopher Corvino

    And u know all this cause u lived in syria under Assads police state i take it?

  35. Jim bo

    Police states work In the middle east. What do you think Saudi Arabia and Turkey are. You know a man can get thrown in prison in Saudi Arabia for giving a girl his phone number.

    Dude check it out. The barrel bomb that killed your family member would have been sitting in dark bunker right now, hadn’t the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey not funded and sent terrorist to Syria. Just saying.

  36. Christopher Corvino

    Clearly it doesn’t work out or there would of never been an Arab spring going on. Why keep bringing up those nations? What about Russia or Iran? Its not like you have to support only the rebels to fuel a civil war. And the fact is it wasn’t until the following yr into the uprising that rebel groups started getting weapons from outside and that was only after Assad made it clear he was not gonna resign peacefully.

  37. Christopher Corvino

    Well thanks to your good genocidal buddy Assad they may very well be all that’s left after he has decimated the moderate opposition that originally wanted him gone. Regardless even if he wins it will only be do to massive support from outside groups like Russia and Iran which makes him nothing more then a puppet.

  38. Alex M

    This is insane, haven’t we learned anything from the overthrow of the communists in Afghanistan, the Shah in Iran, the Ba’athists in Syria, Gadafi in Libya, Mubarack in Egypt, the pullout of Israelis from Gaza and the 1991 elections in Algeria. We should support every modern secular regime against Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Islamist tyrannies and terrorists.

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