As regime forces continue to beat back ISIS in Syria, the country’s embattled president is using the gains to his advantage to convince the West that he’s a viable partner in the fight against terrorism.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad retook the ancient city of Palmyra last month, and have since driven ISIS fighters out of the town of al-Quryatain.
Assad’s focus on ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh), which he claims to have been fighting all along, likely comes as a result of the partial ceasefire between rebels and the regime.
But despite his claims to be fighting terrorists in Syria, Assad’s forces have, until now, mostly focused on eliminating the moderate opposition that challenges Assad’s rule.
Now, as a tenuous ceasefire continues, Assad is using regime gains against ISIS to push his message to the West of being the best partner in the war on terror. But experts say Assad has been a major driver of extremism in Syria — as he massacres civilians and refuses to step down, the moderate opposition becomes more and more radical.
Strategic security firm The Soufan Group noted on Wednesday that Assad’s “role as a fundamental catalyst for extremism in Syria is being increasingly overlooked” as he sees some success against ISIS.
The firm wrote that Assad will “likely walk away as one of the biggest winners from the ceasefire.” The regime’s recent gains all play into Assad’s master plan to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the West.
“Given that the defeat of the Islamic State is the overarching goal of the US-led coalition, continued success against the group will only further serve to entrench Assad’s position in the future of Syria,” The Soufan Group notes.
By focusing on ISIS rather than moderate rebels, Assad has “sculpted a position for itself as an increasingly effective, yet uncomfortable, bedfellow with the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition,” the firm wrote.
“With each successful operation against Islamic State-held territory, the Assad regime compels the international community to afford it more legitimacy,” it said.
US leaders have repeatedly called for Assad to step down, and many experts agree that peace in Syria will be difficult to achieve with Assad as part of the equation.
“The Assad regime staying in power is not the solution,” Charles Lister, a fellow at the Middle East Institute who has written a book on the insurgency in Syria, said at an event in Washington, DC, on Friday. “It’s not the solution for Syria, and it’s certainly not the solution for defeating terrorism on Syrian territory.”
The challenges are both military and political.
On the battlefield, moderate rebels, which are often outgunned by the regime and jihadist forces, are likely to become increasingly weakened. As long as they’re having to fight a battle on multiple fronts — against both the regime and extremist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria — they will be spread too thin to succeed and are fighters may defect to extremist groups that have more power and resources.
On the political side, rebels who took up arms to protest Assad’s treatment of Syrians are unlikely to accept a solution that would allow him to remain in power.
And Sunni extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS will continue to push a narrative of Sunni oppression to gain recruits — the Assad family belongs to a Shia sect and has been ruling over the majority Sunni population of Syria for decades. Many jihadist fighters in Syria have cited Assad’s atrocities as a major motivation for joining extremist groups that fight the regime.
“The solidification of Assad’s position threatens to undermine the possibility of any lasting peace,” The Soufan Group said.
It added: “While some members of the US-led coalition may be willing to acquiesce to the survival of the Assad regime if it leads to the defeat of the Islamic State, the disparate rebel groups … will not accept an outcome to the conflict that maintains the status quo.”
Rebel commanders have made similar assessments. Ahmad al-Soud, the founder and commander of the US-backed Free Syrian Army group known as Division 13, told Business Insider that Assad must leave power before terrorism can be defeated in Syria.
“As long as there’s no decision yet by the US to remove the regime, that is the reason for all of this” fighting, al-Soud said through a translator last month. “… As long as the Assad regime is still around, you’re still going to have different extremist groups in Syria and they’re not going to leave, we’re not going to be able to get them out.”
Still, even if the US were to push for a political solution that saw Assad leaving power, ousting the authoritarian ruler wouldn’t be easy. Russia and Iran are both allies of the regime, and they haven’t seemed willing to pressure Assad to step down. And their position is even less likely to change now that Assad can point to his forces’ victories against ISIS.
The Soufan Group explained:
The regime’s recent military victories against the Islamic State fundamentally alter Assad’s position at the negotiating table, providing the Syrian government with far greater bargaining power. Assad will likely use the momentum against the Islamic State as leverage to attempt to persuade the US-led coalition to treat the Syrian government as a partner against the Islamic State — which has already been evidenced in the Russian invitation for the US coalition to participate in mine-clearing efforts in Palmyra.
And even if the US never sees Assad as a legitimate partner, but the regime’s success against ISIS coupled with the current terror climate in Europe “make the notion of tacit cooperation with Assad somewhat more plausible,” according to the firm.
The note continued: “Given that the defeat of the Islamic State is the overarching goal of the US-led coalition, continued success against the group will only further serve to entrench Assad’s position in the future of Syria — regardless of whether the US-led coalition directly coordinates efforts to combat the Islamic State with Assad or not.”