Forget Assad

If you cannot overthrow the tyrant, co-operate with him. After four disastrous years in Syria this seems to be the conclusion the international community has arrived at.

While back in 2011 Bashar al-Assad’s days appeared to be drawing to a close, a growing number of people are now suggesting that he be part of the solution, as illustrated recently by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura in Vienna.

The more methodically and brutishly Syria’s dictator disregards human rights, the more he seems to assume the role of a potentially reliable partner in the eyes of some. That is primarily due to the Islamist group ISIS. Although there have been few atrocities with civilian victims that the regime is not responsible for, and although it commits these crimes to a much greater, deadlier extent — Assad is readily seen as the ‘lesser evil’.

The suggestion that the situation in Syria could be pacified through co-operation with Assad in the battle against terrorism is as plain as it is ill-conceived when it comes to actual implementation. The fight against ISIS requires three things: means, will and a strategy.

Assad’s regime is subject to international sanctions. But it has been receiving vast amounts of financial and military support from Iran and Russia. How likely would Damascus’ current allies be to maintain this support if Assad was rehabilitated by the West? In view of the weak rouble and the economic consequences of the oil price decrease for Iran, it would be of interest for both to scale down the liability created by their involvement in Syria. The history of Russian-Syrian relations in particular indicates that it was only of interest for Moscow to co-operate with Syria if this also meant making a political statement against the West. A rehabilitation of Syria would come at an exorbitantly high price, politically as well as financially. How much is the West prepared to pay?

Assad’s strength in the battlefield is just as borrowed — from irregular Syrian militias and foreign fighters. As stated by two Dutch journalists who made the journey from Damascus via Homs to Aleppo together with the Syrian military: apart from the special forces in Aleppo, they rarely saw troops of the actual army. The Syrian state has abandoned its monopoly on the use of force in favour of the ‘National Defence Force’ — fighters from Syrian militias, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and even Afghanistan. Such a heterogeneous force can cause a lot of harm but will have great difficulties implementing strategic battle plans.

Even when the regime’s main opponent was the ill-equipped Free Syrian Army, Assad’s forces were not able to defend large parts of the North. Already in the beginning of 2013 the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London stated that the Syrian army had shrunk to half the size of its initial manpower. To declare Assad a partner is easy. But how far is the West prepared to go in order to enable him to meet its expectations? With arms supplies? With ground troops?

Even more difficult is the question of political will. Assad’s goal is international rehabilitation, with which he will be able to re-secure his power. But what exactly he is willing to do for it is up in the air. To begin with, he is much more indebted to Iran and Russia than he is to the West. In the case of diverging interests one would have to assume that Assad, who is known to distinguish himself with anti-Western statements, will not suddenly prioritise Western interests.

Furthermore, the regime has long recognised the value of terrorism: Unable to brush up its image through positive actions, it depends on conjuring up the seemingly worse ‘other’. Little else alerts the West as reliably as the sensed or actual threat of Islamist terror.

Thus there is no reason to assume Assad would relinquish, or even dispose of, the valuable trump card that is ISIS. In 2003, the regime used its best endeavours to promote the journey of jihadis to Iraq in order to prevent itself becoming a target for American troops. The returnees were jailed in Syrian prisons and later purposefully set free in 2011 in an attempt to substantiate the danger of terrorism. This only leads to the conclusion that Syrian action against terrorism would be limited to homoeopathic doses; the regime would safeguard the option of using terrorism as leverage.

Concerning the strategy, already many Sunnis in the region perceive their lives as less important than the lives of members of minority groups in the eyes of the West. Most victims of regime brutality are Sunnis. Considering that they have received little support in their struggle against Assad, that the international community is now even considering him a potential partner against ISIS could amplify the perception of a Western-Shiite conspiracy against Sunnis. As uncertain as the gains that may result from co-operation with the regime in the battle against ISIS would be, it is likely that such a co-operation would trigger an influx of new fighters for ISIS — not for reasons of conviction, but simply because Sunnis could turn to no one else for protection against the regime.

Bente Scheller is Director of the Beirut-based Middle East office of Heinrich Böll Stiftung and author of The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads.

Reproduced with permission of the author and Heinrich Böll Stiftung blog. Translated from the German by Christine F.G. Kollmar.

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