Assad over ISIS: Making Sense of the Quagmire the United States faces in Syria

Since the eruption of the Syrian Civil War during the Arab Spring over four years ago, the country has been afflicted by violent chaos. The Syrian government, under President Bashar al-Assad and supported by troops and weapons from Russia, Iran, and the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, have been in tied down in bloody conflict with numerous insurgent groups, including moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army and radical groups like the Army of Conquest (which includes al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate). Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other Middle Eastern countries support these groups with arms and training, while the United States (US) and France support only the moderate groups.

This struggle resulted in a vacuum that was filled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh. In early 2014, ISIS rapidly gained strength, capturing large swaths of northwestern Iraq. Since then, ISIS has managed to extend direct or indirect control over roughly 2/3 of Syria and 1/4 of Iraq. ISIS is at war with both the aforementioned groups in the Syrian Civil War, and is also facing bombardment from two international coalitions: one under the US, including Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other European and Arab countries, and the other organized by Russia, including Iran and Hezbollah. The US also supports Kurdish forces fighting ISIS and the Syrian regime, recently deploying 50 special forces soldiers to buttress them, along with the soldiers of the Iraqi government fighting ISIS, supported by 3,500 American troops.

These developments create a complex environment for creating policy, in which the US is both trying to degrade ISIS in Syria and Iraq and pushing for leadership that is more democratic and respectful of human rights in Syria. Both are monumental tasks, and thus cannot be both achieved in the short term; therefore, the US must choose which should be prioritized. Ultimately, American ambitions for a more fairly governed post-Assad Syria will have to take a backseat to defeating ISIS.

The US and its allies have made the removal of Assad a precondition to restoring peace in the region, claiming moral and strategic reasons. Assad’s authoritarian regime has killed civilians indiscriminately throughout the conflict: leaving him in power spells further human rights abuses and a setback for the West’s hopes to democratize the country. Strategically, Assad’s grip on power is weakening rebel groups fighting ISIS, the primary enemy in the region. His brutality also enlarges the disaffected Sunni population from which ISIS draws supporters and fighters.

Trying to remove Assad also appears impractical given the current level of support he has been receiving from his allies. Iran has been persistently funneling Shia militiamen to fight for the government and Russia has been conducting heavy air bombardments and cruise missile strikes against rebels since September 30. On September 15, President Vladimir Putin of Russia re-emphasized, “We support the government of Syria in its effort to counter terrorist aggression…We provide and will continue to provide military assistance.” The US, reluctant to take the controversial step of sending in ground troops, has attempted to strengthen rebel groups against Assad’s attacks. But this strategy has been slow and painfully ineffective, and rebels have had no choice but to continue to fight with limited resources and training. The civil war looks set to drag on for the foreseeable future, diverting attention on both sides from the existential threat of ISIS.

Additionally, although keeping Assad is by no means ideal, his fall would result in a power vacuum that numerous rebel groups would try to fill. It is likely that ISIS, which has proven to be the most effective rebel group, would fill most or all of this vacuum. Although the Syrian regime and ISIS are both brutal, it is hard to argue that it would be preferable to have a terrorist group rather than a dictator ruling in Damascus.

Given the consensus that ISIS must be destroyed, then the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Iran, and all other concerned nations must be rallied around this common cause. Currently, the intervention of the various powers is uncoordinated and to a large extent in opposition to one another; this has resulted in confusion and escalating clashes like Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian plane on November 24. The strategies of all intervening powers must be reconciled at least to a degree, and that will mean some concessions on all sides – for the US and its allies, that could be dropping demands that Assad step down.

Having failed to train domestic rebel forces adequately and being unwilling to send in troops of our own, the US must make critical decisions about how to make progress in Syria. The US must recognize that Russia and Iran will not accede to the removal of Assad unless he is replaced with someone very similar who will enforce Russian and Iranian interests. The most important enemy at hand is ISIS – without its defeat, a regime change in Syria will always be too dangerous. French president Francois Hollande believes that “Bashar Assad cannot be the future of Syria,” and that is true; but if there is to be any hope of eventually seeing a peaceful, more democratic Syria, the US must do what it can redirect those actors against ISIS away from each other and toward the common enemy.