Assad Still An Enemy in the Fight Against ISIS

In an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem offered a remarkable, if dubious revelation: that Washington sent three separate messages to Damascus 24 hours in advance of the September 23 airstrikes on Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria, each one saying, “We are not after the Syrian army or the Syrian government.” One hopes that Mr. Muallem’s truthfulness in this matter is consistent with the usual standards of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. For if the supposed messages were as described, they would have been read in Damascus as a green light for the continuation of the regime’s barrel bombing, artillery shelling, and starvation sieging of areas held by mainstream Syrian rebels—the same rebels designated by President Obama as the ground component of American-led military operations against IS in Syria.

Muallem was probably either dissembling or misleading. A proper message to Damascus would have been unambiguously curt: “Coalition aircraft will soon commence operations against ISIL in Syria. Any Syrian government anti-aircraft installations detected in target acquisition mode against coalition aircraft will be engaged decisively. Any Syrian government aircraft detected in the skies during coalition operations will be considered hostile.” Regardless of what was actually said, it’s unthinkable that whatever message may have been conveyed to the regime would have been worded consistent with Mr. Muallem’s description.

Unthinkable for two reasons. First: Although Obama claims that the American intelligence community did not grasp the scope of IS’s rise in Syria, neither he nor anyone in his administration will ever express ignorance about the gross criminality of the Assad regime in Syria, and therefore will be exceedingly careful about inadvertent giving the green light for more of the same. And second: Obama has made it clear that the nationalist, mainstream armed resistance to the regime will be the aforementioned ground component against IS in Syria. Indeed, as a matter of logic and military necessity it would have made sense to end any message to Damascus with the following warning: “Barrel bombings, artillery shelling, and starvation sieges should cease immediately.”

Muallem’s mission is to sanctify that which is obscene: the illusory image of the Assad regime’s being allied with the West against IS. The West, according to Muallem in the AP interview, need not coordinate anti-IS operations with the Syrian government: “simply being informed” is good enough. “Until today,” said Muallem, “we are satisfied. As long as they are aiming at ISIS locations in Syria and Iraq, we are satisfied.” No doubt the attitude of the Assad regime toward these strikes would be different if coalition aircraft were hitting IS formations in western Syria: those supplying the hammer to the regime’s anvil against nationalist forces, mainly in and around Aleppo. But for now coalition aircraft are concentrating on IS targets about which the Assad regime is supremely indifferent. The de facto collaboration between the regime and IS against what is left of the armed nationalist opposition in Syria remains undisturbed.

Indeed, when asked about “the loose umbrella rebel group known as the Free Syrian Army,” Muallem claimed that the group “does not exist anymore.” By implying that it once existed, the Syrian foreign minister seemed to part ways with the regime narrative that it faced nothing but terrorists from the very beginning of the uprising in March 2011. Consistent with the commentary of some Western analysts critical of Obama’s decision to support the mainstream, nationalist Syrian opposition, Muallem put all of the regime’s current opponents in the same category: “They have the same ideology. They have the same extremist ideology.” Is Syria now aligned with the West against extremism? According to Muallem, “This is the fact.”

The salient fact governing today’s situation in Syria is that there would be no Islamic State were it not for the criminally sectarian manner in which the Assad regime chose to respond to peaceful political protest. This would be true even if the Assad regime had had nothing to do with sustaining Al Qaeda in Iraq during the years of American occupation. This would be true even if regime-IS collaboration on the ground in western Syria were merely happenstance: an accident produced by the existence of a common enemy. Walid al-Muallem is a skilled diplomat. Yet not even he can erase the organic link between the lawlessness of the regime he represents and the magnetic effect of IS on foreign fighters seeking jihad and some Syrian rebels seeking (among other things) breakfast and some pocket money. Not even he can make the Assad regime part of the answer for Syria.

No doubt Muallem exercised literary and diplomatic license in characterizing messages allegedly received from Washington. No doubt he has a steep hill to climb in trying to re-introduce Bashar al-Assad to polite society. Yet unless Washington finds a way to curb the murderous excess of the Assad regime and breaks the regime’s collaboration with IS in western Syria, who can guarantee that paid and unpaid apologists for the regime will not in the end succeed?

Already that which remains of the armed nationalist opposition wonders what it means to be the ground component of a coalition that bombs IS in eastern Syria while permitting IS’s partner in the western part of the country to terrorize civilians with barrel bombs, artillery, chlorine, and starvation. It is not a bad question. Any answer from the lips of Walid al-Muallem will be unsatisfactory. Yet accuracy may be something else entirely. That will depend on what the United States, Turkey, and others actually do to neutralize both forces—the regime and IS—that are causing the failure of the Syrian state.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. This article was originally published on the New Republic on September 30, 2014.

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Image: Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem (R) meets United Nations Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura in Damascus September 10, 2014, in this picture released by Syria's national news agency SANA. (Photo: Reuters)