Over the course of this election cycle, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly insisted that Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies are fighting terrorism in Syria.
“I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS,” Trump said during the second presidential debate.
It’s exactly what Assad wants everyone to think — but experts say it’s not true.
“The Assad government strategy has long been to present the world a binary choice: either the Assad government, which is in some ways secular, or the extremist Islamists and force the world to choose between them,” Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who was the US ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, told Business Insider.
He added: “The Russians have already made their choice.”
Russia is one of Assad’s main allies in the Syrian civil war that has dragged on for more than five years. President Vladimir Putin has authorised Russian military strikes in Syria in support of Assad’s government. And while Putin claims to be fighting terrorism in Syria, his military has mostly targeted more moderate opposition forces that oppose Assad’s regime.
There are multiple fronts in the Syrian conflict — terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda-linked factions are fighting for territory, as are moderate rebel groups. But Assad’s primary goal so far has been to wipe out the moderate opposition to make his regime look more legitimate in comparison.
“That’s why these groups are not their main target,” Ford said. “So they have spent almost all their time trying to eliminate the moderate opposition because they want to boil it down to a choice between the extremists and Assad.”
Analysis of Russian airstrikes from September 2015, when Russian involvement in Syria started, and September 2016 showed that “Russia’s claims of striking ‘terrorists’ were clearly not accurate as they repeatedly attacked mainstream opposition groups, particularly those working with the West,” according to the Washington-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War.
While Russia has struck some terrorist targets, these have been in the minority.
“Since it intervened militarily in Syria over a year ago to save Assad, Russia has concentrated its firepower almost exclusively against Syrian civilians and Syrian nationalist opponents of Assad: people who are on ISIS’ bullseye as well,” Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider in an email.
“ISIS, Assad, Russia, and Iran each share the same objective: to have ISIS and Assad be the last parties left standing in Syria.”
But Hof said he doesn’t think Trump is purposely boosting Assad’s narrative of being the last bulwark against a terrorist takeover of Syria.
“I’m willing to assume that Mr. Trump is not consciously pushing the Moscow-Tehran-Assad line,” Hof said. “Unlike his running mate, who has called for the defence of Aleppo against unmerciful regime and Russian attacks, he seems not to have studied the issue in any depth. This he can correct if he wishes.”
Ford made a similar assessment.
“With all due respect to Mr. Trump, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he said. “[I] don’t think Donald Trump understands that the problem of the Islamic State is essentially a political problem, not a military problem and that it cannot be resolved be a purely military approach.”
Experts contend that terrorism in Syria is a political problem because as long Assad continues to hang onto power and relentlessly attack civilians with barrel bombs and chemical weapons, using air power that the rebels don’t have, people will be persuaded to join terrorist groups that are better equipped than the rebels to fight his regime.
Assad has killed far more civilians in Syria than terrorist groups, so he’s the main enemy of most people who remain in the war-torn country.
“Including Bashar al-Assad as part of the solution when Bashar al-Assad’s government is the origin of the political problem makes no sense,” Ford said. “It just makes no sense to me. And if anything, it might make the problem worse rather than better in terms of aiding jihadi recruitment.”
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