With Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel telling a Pentagon press conference that “all options are on the table” regarding air strikes in Syria on the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey saying that ISIS cannot be defeated militarily without addressing its presence in Syria, an obvious question arises: can the Assad regime be part of an international coalition to confront and neutralize the ISIS threat? The answer is no. But getting to “no” requires action now to boost the survival prospects of Syrian nationalists fighting both the regime and ISIS.
By reportedly conducting airstrikes on ISIS positions in eastern Syria, the Assad regime is begging for readmission to polite society by attacking the very forces whose existence it has facilitated over the years. Yet it is doing so in a selective way that preserves its de facto collaboration with ISIS in western Syria against the nationalist Syrian opposition. It fights ISIS in the east over oil fields—money, after all, is at stake. It ignores ISIS in the west: erasing the nationalist opposition is an objective fully shared in by Bashar al-Assad and “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It bombs ISIS targets (as well as civilian water treatment facilities) in the east, perhaps at the behest of Iran, certainly in pursuit of Western appreciation. It shells and bombs Syrian civilians in the west, hoping that its terror tactics combined with ISIS ground assaults can eliminate what is left of the nationalist rebels.
Suppose, however, that the Assad regime and ISIS succeed in eliminating opposition positions in Aleppo and elsewhere. Suppose that ISIS succeeds in taking over crossing points along the Turkish border and that what remains of the nationalist opposition is forced to go underground in Syria or flee to Turkey. Suppose that (with the exception of Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria) it comes down to the Assad regime and ISIS as the only military forces left standing in Syria: a conceivable outcome given the tentative nature of Western support for Syrian nationalists. If it is Assad versus ISIS, does the situation change? Will Assad’s efforts to transform his opposition from nationalist to terrorist be crowned, at long last, with success? In the end, will Bashar al-Assad succeed in convincing the West that he is part of the answer; that his regime is the fire brigade required to counter the effects of his own arson? An outcome of this nature would require large doses of credulity, stupidity, and negligence on the part of the West.
If the Assad regime were serious about its desire to be part of a broad coalition countering the ISIS threat, it would cease forthwith its terror attacks on Syrian civilian populations and its campaign of starvation sieges against Syrian civilian neighborhoods. It would implement a unilateral ceasefire in areas where regime and nationalist forces confront one another and it would notify the United Nations Special Envoy of its readiness to reengage in political transition negotiations with the Syrian National Coalition under the terms and conditions of the June 30, 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué. It could, in short, set the stage for the creation of a national unity transitional governing body that could rally all Syrians to the fight against ISIS. Ideally, Assad in Syria—like Maliki in Iraq—would step aside to enable a constructive political process.
This, however, is not what the regime has in mind. It would prefer to confront the West with what it would present as a fait accompli: the opposition is dead; ISIS is a greater evil than us; you in the West have no choice but to work with us against this greater evil.
This ugly dilemma would be a direct consequence of the failure of the West to support armed Syrian nationalists systematically, beginning in 2012. The administration and its supporters claim that such support would not have worked anyway, even as the administration now asks Congress to provide $500 million to support armed Syrian nationalists at this regrettably late date. The administration and its supporters employ the straw man tactic, claiming that a different decision in the summer of 2012 would not have totally solved Syria’s crisis. Fair enough, but none of the proponents claimed arming and organizing rebel forces would, in and of itself, solve everything. But would the West be facing the prospect now of such a hellish dilemma had a different course been taken then? Would the situation on the ground in Syria be as bad now as it actually is? Had supplier discipline been enforced by an engaged United States beginning in the summer of 2012, would Assad and ISIS two years later be within reach of being the only contenders still standing?
If Baghdadi and Assad emerge as the last two men standing, surely the Obama administration, US allies, friends, and partners will not wish to be seen as working in tandem with a regime whose leaders may ultimately be gallows-bound in payment for their grotesque war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the event it comes down to ISIS versus Assad, no doubt the United States and its coalition partners (to the extent they undertake air operations against ISIS in Syria) will repetitively insist that Assad—like Maliki in Iraq—must step aside to make a Syrian anti-ISIS political settlement possible. But what will it look like if coordinated coalition airstrikes on ISIS vie for airspace with Assad’s air force? What, for that matter, will it look like if Assad’s forces merely defend and counterattack ISIS ground assaults while leaving the air war to the United States and its partners? What effects might such scenarios have on predominantly Sunni Arab regional states the United States will wish to draw into an anti-ISIS coalition?
Avoiding this ugly dilemma should be a high US policy priority. This is why President Obama should make clear to his administration his desire that nationalist Syrian rebels—even at this late date—be armed and resupplied quickly and robustly. This is why a campaign of anti-ISIS air assaults in Syria should focus not only on ISIS rear areas supporting the assault in Iraq, but on ISIS front lines spearheading attacks on Syrian nationalist positions.
Having acknowledged that US boots were indeed on the ground in Syria in a brave, well-conceived, but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to free American hostages, the Obama administration has wisely forfeited the president’s argument that he lacks legal authority to hit ISIS in Syria. ISIS should be hit, and hit hard. Yet if President Obama wishes to avoid the impression that the United States is collaborating with the crime family that has enabled both ISIS and the destruction of Syria, he will direct an immediate and significant resupply of nationalist forces and give the assurances required to encourage the full relocation of Syria’s external opposition to Syria itself. To do less would be to tempt fate once again—a proven loser in the context of Syria policy.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.