Over recent weeks, the media has been saturated with growing speculation that America could either officially or unofficially adopt Iran and Bashar al-Assad as its allies in combatting ISIS; the so-called “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem has added to the speculation by offering up the Syrian regime as the ally of the West against terrorism. To add weight to this offer, for the first time the Syrian regime has actively begun confronting ISIS.
Al-Muallem would like us all to conveniently forget that ISIS is effectively a creation of the Syrian regime and Iran. Back in early 2011 when the Syrian uprising was still largely peaceful, Al-Muallem’s regime began to play the bogeyman card of Islamic extremism – portraying peaceful protesters as Al-Qaeda terrorists.
When the world laughed at these claims, Bashar al-Assad and his cronies set out to prove the world wrong by creating the specter of Islamist extremism in Syria and by nurturing extremist groups in areas under rebel control. They allowed Iraqi extremists to gain a foothold on the Syrian side of the border and only engaged in combat operations with moderate or completely unarmed elements of the opposition.
Later on, the regime even started trading with extremist groups that were in control of Syrian oilfields and substantial other resources; allowing groups like ISIS to enrich themselves. Unsurprisingly, these extremist groups thrived and apologists for the regime, like Russia and Iran were able to claim “we told you so”.
Many outside observers were also proved wrong in claiming that Bashar al-Assad’s regime could only last a few months against the rebels. Countless billions of dollars of Iranian funding and military support from Hezbollah and the Iranian Republican Guards proved that theory wrong. In part this has happened by Iran bankrolling the massive sale of Russian weaponry to Syria. Indeed, many experts believe that much of Bashar Al-Assad’s genocidal campaign against the opposition was effectively run by Iran’s Quds Force Chief, Qassem Soleimani.
However, the mere fact that the Syrian regime still exists doesn’t mean that it is a viable entity, capable of governing Syria. The Syrian regime is only in full control of limited pockets of territory and much of a result of this is as a result of enforced pacification of localities whose sympathies certainly don’t lie with the Bashar Al-Assad, the man responsible for massacring around 200,000 Syrians with Iranian assistance.
Next door in Iraq, Iran also shares much of the blame for ISIS’s sudden ascendancy, by encouraging its puppet Nouri Al-Maliki to have pursued a sectarian and divisive agenda that led Sunnis to feel alienated from the Iraqi state and led Kurds to distance themselves and dream of independence.
Iran, Syria and Maliki may have created the ISIS phenomena, but they certainly don’t control it. We have just seen ISIS kick Syrian forces out of the huge Tabqa airbase, the regime’s last foothold in the Raqqa province.
Shia militants in Iraq have so far made little progress in retaking ISIS-held areas and in the event that they ever made incursions into Sunni-majority areas, the result would be likely to be a bloody all-out sectarian war.
Regrettably, the US response to ISIS seems to have been hesitant and confused. Limited airstrikes in northern Iraq will not be decisive against a battle-hardened and well-armed entity, and the use of surveillance drones in Syria may just contribute to helping ISIS see America and the West as its primary enemies.
Thankfully, there is no hint from the US that they may be changing their policy towards Bashar al-Assad any time soon. The point made by Britain’s Foreign Secretary that “my enemy’s enemy is not my friend” is very apt for describing the West’s predicament.
Al-Assad and Iran do not want ISIS to become too dominant. It is a measure of the regime’s desperation that they resorted to empowering ISIS at all. However, it would be naïve for the West to believe that they, Iran and Al-Assad share a strategic interest in destroying and defeating ISIS.
ISIS is currently Bashar Al-Assad’s best reason for existing. Because of ISIS Al-Assad can portray himself to his supporters and backers as the strong man, defending his citizens against crazed jihadists.
The Syrian regime in the future will be bankrupt, weak, hated and globally marginalized. Therefore, the survival of Iran’s closest regional ally depends on ISIS continuing to thrive and present itself as a threat to global security. However, even hints and rumors that Al-Assad could play a counter-terrorism role gives the regime a huge additional dose of legitimacy and credibility.
Similarly, Iran does not want a strong Sunni extremist next door. However Iran has a vested interest in cultivating a range of moderately-threatening groups that it can use as bargaining chips and for wearing down its near-neighbours.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban had been a dangerous enemy of Iran, but that didn’t stop Iran channeling weapons and funding to it in order to keep US troops busy and maintain an Afghanistan that was weak enough for neighbours to interfere with impunity. Al-Qaeda personnel were housed in Iran for similar purposes.
So a clear-headed strategy for countering ISIS will recognize that Iran and Al-Assad are not potential allies of any kind. These parties relish the thought of a jihadist entity that can threaten the West and other parts of the Arab world. They cannot be trusted.
Therefore, there are a number of lessons we can take away from a better understanding of the challenge, in trying to work out what a unified strategy for combatting ISIS would look like:
1. Relying on Shia militias in Iraq to fight ISIS will only make ISIS stronger and allow them to recruit thousands of foot-soldiers, anxious to defend the “Sunni” Caliphate. Such a strategy would also unite Sunnis behind ISIS and trigger full sectarian war.
2. When ISIS alienates the Sunni community, then its days are numbered. ISIS’s brutal rule will sooner-or-later produce a backlash from people known for their resilience and toughness. Furthermore, such extremist groups tend to become ideologically more extreme; which leads to fragmentation, infighting and alienating key allies. Therefore, empowering Iraq’s Sunnis and facilitating the collapse and fragmentation of ISIS from the inside may bring better results than relying just on direct confrontation from the outside.
3. ISIS can only be confronted with a clear and unified regional approach that dries up sources of funding and recruitment; deals with the root causes of sectarian tensions; and ensures the creation of effective governance in areas outside ISIS’s control. States that are exacerbating the situation for their own ends must be dealt with assertively.
4. The fight against ISIS must be part of a wider process of restoring stability and ensuring effective governance across the entire region. Extremism in the long term will only be neutralized through empowered leaderships in places like Jordan and the Gulf; with power-sharing formulas in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that don’t allow one party to dominate all others.
5. Extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda are the product of power vacuums. The collapse of central power in Libya has created a similar vacuum which is being filled by well-armed militias backed by foreign states. Only when such vacuums do not exist and strong and effective governance has been restored can we consider that the battle against such militant extremists has been won.
If America and the West try to pass on responsibility for addressing this crisis to Iran, Shia militias or Bashar Al-Assad then they are only making a bad problem worse; mistakenly looking for solutions from the parties that have created much of this chaos in the first place.