“It must be now clear to western defence chiefs that there is only one credible fighting force on the ground capable of fighting ISIS and that is the Syrian military. The Syrians [i.e. the Syrian regime] have held all the aces up their sleeve…”[i]
Such proposals are commonplace in diplomatic circles, but what is new this time is that this view is no longer limited to Assad’s supporters and allies. Instead, it is being bandied about by other international and regional politicians and experts whose anti-terrorism stance weakens their determination to topple Assad. This results from a growing consensus that the international military coalition against ISIS is failing to achieve its objectives and that the coalition has no effective local partner capable of finishing off the coalition’s work on the ground.
At least for some, the primary reason for desiring an alliance with Assad is to achieve military victory. Assad is the best candidate to achieve such an outcome: he has a strong army with a centralized command, more than sufficient experience in combating terrorist organizations and, furthermore, he remains the most effective source of authority in the country. Finding out if Assad is up to this task requires a close reading of military operations on the ground and of the victories he has achieved during the conflict in Syria.
Assad used military force against citizens who held peaceful demonstrations demanding political change, an approach that subsequently led to armed conflict, yet despite the huge military effort he has made to dispose of the ill-equipped Free Syrian Army he has failed to do so. To hold the status quo, he has been forced to demand greater contributions from the local militias he created, such as the shabiha[ii], currently called the National Defense Force, Baathist brigades, and others, and foreign militia fighters (Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Abou Fadl Al Abbas Brigades from Iraq, detachments of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, etc.). His failure and response have a number of causes, the most important being: the weakness of the regime’s armed forces as a result of the defection of a large number of its soldiers and the erosion of its centralized command structure, the emergence of semi-independent “warlords” within the ranks of the army[iii], the increasing numbers evading military service, the lack of trust shown in recruits from regions opposed to the regime, and the growing need for sufficient manpower to achieve military victories and hold on to territory won. Yet despite the huge amount of military aid (both fighters and weapons) that Assad continues to receive from his allies, he remains unable to defeat the oppositional armed groups that lack experience and weapons, that are constantly warring among themselves, and that are disorganized and without any centralized leadership.
When it comes to fighting against ISIS it is obvious that Assad has not fought many battles against it. ISIS’ strategy of avoiding open warfare with the regime is still in effect, and the same is true for the other side. This is for a number of reasons, chief amongst them: that ISIS exists in regions outside the regime’s control and that its battle plan consists of expelling other opposition groups out of these regions and then taking them over, and also that ISIS’ presence bolsters the regime’s narrative that what is taking place in Syria is a war between a secular regime and terrorist groups. What we can conclude from the very small number of battles fought between the sides, is that ISIS has taken the initiative against the regime in most cases, especially in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Homs, that it has prevailed in the majority of its battles against the regime (i.e. Tabaqa Airbase, Brigade 93, the 17th Division), and that most of these armed clashes came as part of a plan to take control of strategic locations. Given these facts it is extremely improbable that the regime could ever be able to achieve a military victory over ISIS or hold territory against it in the current climate.
Into the wrong hands
One of the major difficulties that continues to obstruct plans to arm the “moderate opposition” by Western powers that both oppose Assad and support a military solution, is their fear that extremist groups will manage to take possession of any weaponry and equipment they provide. Despite the many attempts to provide assurances in this respect, there has been no consensus over practical steps, and as a result no notably effective weaponry has been handed over that might help the opposition alter the balance of power on the ground.
Were, for the sake of argument, those who are keen on allying with Assad to demand (at the very least) the same assurances from the regime that their weapons would not fall into the hands of terrorist groups, then the outcome could be predicted in advance. The Syrian regime has a long history of facilitating the operation of terrorist groups, something it did following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the Syrian intelligence services tolerated and assisted jihadist groups that wanted to carry out operations in Iraq[iv], as well as the regime’s own involvement in mounting attacks against the West[v]. Thousands of political peaceful opposition activists remained behind bars whereasthe regime released hundreds of extremists from Sednaya prison[vi] who later went on to form or join jihadist organizations. Another poorly kept secret is the regime’s role in facilitating the supply of weapons to Hezbollah, whose military wing was classified as a terrorist organization by the EU on July 22, 2013. The regime has a history of cooperating with terrorist organizations and/or non-governmental armed groups, using them to exert pressure in the pursuit of political advantage, and it is unlikely to alter this policy. It is probable, too, that the regime will continue to facilitate the provision of arms to Hezbollah, since this is a condition of Iran continuing to supply aid (i.e. money, weapons, fighters, expertise and militias) to the regime, which is a cornerstone of Assad’s military survival.
Lack of support
Destroying ISIS will require working on a number of levels, including: driving a wedge between ISIS and the Sunni community and encouraging Sunnis to join the fight against it both morally (i.e. countering the group’s conservative religious discourse with a moderate Sunni discourse) and militarily; working to solve the deep rooted political, economic, social and cultural problems that gave rise to ISIS; and finally, to foster firm regional and international cooperation to isolate ISIS and cut off its funding.
The chances of winning the war against ISIS are next to nil without the participation of the Sunni community since all successful attempts to see off extremist groups in Syria suggest that these efforts must be led by the Sunni community if they are to prosper. Examples are the expulsion of ISIS from the countryside around Aleppo and Idlib and from the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in early 2014 by opposition groups, and the successes of the Sunni “Awakening” tribal militias in Iraq between 2006 and 2008.
Partnering with Assad’s regime will not help win over the Sunni community in the fight against ISIS but it will, on the contrary, encourage many more members of that community to either join ISIS or to support it against Assad. ISIS has portrayed the new international military coalition as if it declared war on Islam, not ISIS, and a cooperation with Assad (and Iran) would multiply this effect.
Hostility between the regime and some regional and Western nations has reached such a degree of intractability that it is hard to envision the success of any regional and international anti-terrorism coalition that works with it. The most important regional players —Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar— would regard Assad remaining in power as a personal defeat. For instance, Turkey made its increased participation in the international coalition conditional on the US adopting a strategy to remove Assad, and the same applies to other international actors.
Enforcing security and administering the country
Assad’s ability to enforce security and administer the country depends on his ability both to revitalize his regime, to maintain relations with his allies, and to find a solution to the Syrian conflict that will allow refugees and displaced persons to return to their home regions. Given the absence of any confidence building measure over the past three and a half years, it is difficult to imagine how trust could now be inspired. Such a move would, however, lead to divisions in the regime’s inner core, thus increasing the number of its opponents and leaving it dangerously weak. The regime’s inner structure is sealed and inflexible: any change to this structure will impact the composition of the regime as a whole.
Devising a sustainable political solution to the conflict will necessitate allowing the regime at least a part-share in power, if only superficially, alongside what is known as “the patriotic opposition” (i.e. the strictly local political opposition that makes no appeal for foreign intervention). However, during the recent period of conflict in Syria, the regime has never made any serious attempt to communicate with any element within the opposition, even the “patriotic opposition.” Instead, it has killed, tortured and imprisoned the majority of leaders of the civil-society movement, and many members of the “patriotic opposition”.
The belief that the regime is capable of administering the country stems from the assumption that it has been doing so successfully despite the challenges it faces. Why then should it not be able to continue to do so in the event of an alliance, when the task would be that much simpler? But this attitude ignores a number of facts, most importantly: that there has been a catastrophic decline in the quantity and quality of services offered to citizens, with important sectors such as health and education witnessing the growing deterioration of their infrastructure and manpower resources, not to mention the decline of all other industrial and service sectors.
As of June 17, 2014[vii], the number of Syrians in urgent need of humanitarian assistance stood at 10.8 million, approximately half the population. The return of Syrian refugees and displaced persons is one of the international community’s priorities. Should an alliance with Assad take place it is unlikely that most of these individuals will return to their home regions for the following reasons: fear of detention and pursuit by the security services and militias loyal to Assad; the lack of a stable security situation in the majority of the country with the expectation of continued armed operations against Assad by opposition forces with regional, and most probably international, backing; low capital investment due to the security situation; and the domination of the economy by individuals in Assad’s inner circle as a reward for their loyalty, which would lead to a shortfall of job opportunities on the open market. Taken together, these and other factors will lead to large numbers of Syrians continuing to be in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
It is often said that politics and ethics don’t mix, usually to excuse strategic political decisions that fly in the face of conventional morality, and it is more than likely that this phrase will receive another airing to justify cooperating with Assad, on the grounds that defenders of this option portray it as the least bad of two options while in fact, there are more. It is just that the other options are more complicated. But this justification ignores two points. The first is that Bashar al-Assad is a weak dictator, unable to carry out the duties required of him. The second point is that there are other options “less bad” than Assad, but they require more effort than the easy option. Assad was and is part of the problem and bringing him down will be the start of the solution.
*Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger
[iii] Such as Colonel Suhail Al Hassan who leads a private military force made up of enlisted soldiers and militiamen and who gained fame in some circles as the “savoir of the Alawites”.
[vii] The fourth monthly UN report on humanitarian access in Syria delivered to the UN Security Council by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.