Saturday, October 1, 2016

Assad and IS: two sides of the same coin

The story comes from DAWN.

Assad and IS: two sides of the same coin

Political extremism in Syria — the kind that combines irreligious sectarianism in the name of Islam with transnational terrorism — depends on Bashar al-Assad clinging to power. The militant Islamic State group certainly must be beaten militarily, a long process that is painfully overdue. But Assad’s political survival strategy of mass homicide has made Syria fertile ground for vicious forms of criminality distinct from his own. To defeat the IS, we must end the regime’s mass murder: diplomatically if possible, militarily if necessary.

The Assad regime is a cause and enabler of the IS. In the early 2000s, it helped midwife Al Qaeda in Iraq, the direct ancestor of the IS, by escorting foreign fighters across Syria and into Iraq. By pursuing a civilian-centric terrorism agenda since 2011 and alienating Sunni Muslims in Syria and around the globe, the regime has boosted the terrorist group’s recruiting and created a territorial vacuum for the ersatz caliphate to fill. The IS is Assad’s enemy of choice, and Assad is the group’s enemy of choice as well — someone whose depredations fall overwhelmingly on Sunni Muslims it hopes to recruit.

President Obama first acknowledged this symbiotic relationship in November 2014 at the G20 summit in Australia. He recognises that Assad’s war on civilians sustains the IS, but he has never exacted a military price for mass murder. Instead the United States’ strategy in Syria today ineffectively divides the problem into two loosely connected pieces: in the West, watching mass murder while entreating Russia to stop it; in the East, pursuing the IS indecisively with airplanes and a Kurdish militia.

No one advocates invading and occupying Syria. Still, the next president should approach Syria in a way consistent with ground truth: the rampant criminality of the Assad regime makes Syria safe for terrorist groups that threaten the United States and its allies.

If talks with Russia fail to stop regime atrocities, the president — our current one or the next — should seek, select and apply modest military means (such as cruise missile strikes and effective anti-aircraft weapons for vetted rebels) to exact a painful price for wanton attacks on hospitals, schools, markets and mosques. Russia and Iran will not like it, but they can prevent it by getting their client out of the mass murder business. No one knows where Syria or Assad will be politically in a year, or three, or five. But we do know this: nothing politically good can happen in Syria with civilians on the bull’s-eye. Assad’s free ride for mass murder must end for Syria’s future to begin.

The IS must be killed militarily and kept from coming back to life, but the missing ingredient has been a sufficiently capable ground force. For military victory over the IS to be sealed, Washington and its allies must prepare their partners in the Syrian opposition to govern liberated areas. All of this is painfully and gratuitously overdue. A regional and European coalition of the willing under US leadership should have been organised right after the Paris attacks of November 2015.

Protecting civilians, beating the IS and organising decent governance for eastern Syria should be the pillars of a strategy to stabilise Syria, to set the stage for real peace talks and to stop the haemorrhaging of terrified humanity from a country ravaged mercilessly by two sides of the same terrorist coin: the Islamic State and Assad.

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