In September of 2015, during his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly in more than a decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his country’s support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin argued that the Syrian military was one of the few forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) stating, “it would be a mistake not to cooperate with the Syrian government.” While it is understandable that Putin would make such claims to justify his support to the Assad regime, what was more surprising was that some Western commentators agreed. Unfortunately, it is becoming more popular to say that Assad is necessary to defeat ISIS. This reasoning is devoid of any real understanding of the Syrian conflict. Supporting Assad untenable and shoring up his regime will only increase the strength of ISIS.
The argument for supporting the Assad regime is based on the belief that it represents an effective fighting force against ISIS. Acknowledging that air power alone is insufficient for defeating ISIS, commentators like Leslie Gelb and Max Abrahms argue that the only viable ground force able to counter the radical organization is the Syrian government. Another argument for shoring up Assad is that he represents the lesser of two evils. Between ISIS’s horrific propaganda videos and its supposed global reach, Assad has limited and seems tame in comparison. Add to this both disillusionment over the failure of ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel forces and statements by Western leaders calling for Assad to stay as Syria’s President (for the short term at least) and it seems that supporting Assad is the popular policy option.
This policy option is based on a narrow understanding of the Syrian conflict. At no point has ISIS committed the majority, or even a plurality of the violence in the country. That dubious honor has belonged to the Assad regime. Even if you were to combine all the casualties from all the non-state actors operating in Syria, they still would fail to even garner 10% of the total casualties. Defeating ISIS in Syria will do little to stop the ongoing violence. Even if the Assad regime did not actively support the rise of ISIS to delegitimize and kill off the opposition, the pure brutality of the Assad regime has been a great recruiting tactic. Although ISIS has publicized its brutality to the world, it pales in comparison to the atrocities committed by the Assad regime. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, ISIS was responsible for 5% of civilian casualties committed in Syria in December 2014. By comparison, the Syrian government was responsible for 85% of civilian fatalities. Nor has this trend changed in 2015. The Syrian regime continues to be the primary killer of civilians in the civil war. Syrian citizens have even indicated that they would welcome the Islamic State if it meant protection from the regime.
Further, the very few times the Syrian army has confronted ISIS, it has not been effective. Instead, the Syrian rebels have been forcing the terrorist organization out of villages and cities. It was rebels that forced ISIS out of Idlib, Deir Ezzor, as well as parts of Aleppo. It was the combined efforts of Palestinian forces that pushed ISIS out of Yarmouk. In contrast, Assad has admitted that he has given up control of parts of the country. Indeed, one major motivation for Russia’s increased presence has been the defeats and the overall weakness of the government. Other analysts, such as Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have pointed out that the few successes the regime has had against ISIS were due to the organization’s overreach by attempting offensives on multiple fronts.
Finally, ISIS came to power due to the aid given to it by the Assad regime. From the beginning, the growth of ISIS and other radical groups was encouraged by the state. This is hardly unknown, but rather a well-documented event. Indeed, this has been written about in a wide variety of journalistic and academic accounts, including Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror; Jean-Pierre Filiu’s From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy; and Will McCants’s The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, among others. Why? Not only did it legitimize Assad’s narrative that the revolution was led by radical Salafis, these groups would eliminate his domestic rivals, leaving Western countries with the option to either support him or extremists.1 In addition to releasing prisoners to join extremist organizations, Assad has also avoided military confrontation with ISIS and even supports ISIS in its fight against rival rebel groups. Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group and analysts at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center point out that in 2014, less than 10% of attacks by the regime were directed towards ISIS. This has continued with Russia’s involvement in the civil war. Their bombing of rebels allowed ISIS to make significant gains in Aleppo, essentially acting as ISIS’s air force. Perhaps Assad will soon realize that ISIS has grown beyond what he can control, but supporting him will not lead to a stable Syria and a defeated ISIS.
There has been, and will continue to be, a vigorous debate on appropriate policy responses to the Syrian civil war and the ISIS threat. Each strategy, from containment to outright military intervention, has its own strengths and weaknesses, but none would be quite as destructive as relying on Assad to be the solution. Not only has the Syrian President fueled the rise of extremist groups through his brutal tactics, he has actively aided these same groups in weakening his opposition. The idea that supporting Assad will lead to the defeat of ISIS and other extremist groups is nonsensical.
1. Will McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 125.
Hari Prasad is a second-year graduate student in the International Affairs program at the Elliott School of International Affairs with a focus on the Middle East, South Asia, and Security Studies. He received his BA in International Affairs and Economics at Marquette University. He also blogs about South Asian issues at southasiaathudson.com and tweets @HariPrasad91. Hari can be reached at email@example.com.