First, it is important to recognize that ISIS is not Al Qaeda, though there is understandable confusion. After all, both are committed to the establishment of the new Caliphate, a pan-Islamic but Sunni-led theocratic state that would – theoretically at least – stretch from Andalucía in Spain through North Africa and the Balkans, all the way to northern India and the East Indies. Anywhere an Islamic dynasty has ever held an inch of ground. That’s the theory, though in practice, Al Qaeda was more interested in the Arab Heartland, from the Egyptian to the Iranian border and south from Turkey.
That was never going to be easy. None of the Arab states in the region were remotely interested in the Caliphate: Egypt was ruled by American-backed generals, Saudi Arabia and Jordan were American-backed monarchies, Syria and Iraq were nominally secular Baathist one-party autocracies. Syria had the additional inconvenience of being led by an Alawite, who are traditionally Shiites. Where to start? Al Qaeda knew that the overthrow of any of these regimes was almost impossible: people had been trying for decades and most of them were dead. Only in Iran had they succeed; and they were the despised Shiites. So Bin Laden decided that strike at the far enemy, the United States, who was the ultimate guarantor of the security and stability of many of these regimes. A successful attack on US soil would either lead to a massive response, which would in turn lead to popular uprisings against this “new crusade”; or else the US would refrain from counter-attacking, and thus demonstrate weakness which might have a similar result.
Al Qaeda was wrong: but not entirely wrong. The US did counterattack into Afghanistan, but enjoyed widespread support in doing so, even among many Arabs. Then, inexplicably, the US invaded Iraq and handed Al Qaeda an unbelievable, but welcome, opportunity. Here was the destruction of one of the hated regimes that Al Qaeda would never have been able to achieve on its own; here too was the massive failure in US intelligence, preparation and execution which led to a power vacuum, sectarian violence and chaos in post-war Iraq. No more fertile breeding ground could have been imagined in Bin Laden’s most fevered dreams. But again, no massive popular uprising across the Arab world.
ISIS was born out of the Syrian Civil War, though many of the fighters cut their teeth against American forces in Iraq. It was born of the fratricide of that civil war, which almost immediately took on a sectarian character. Here you had Sunni insurgents from Iraq, who had been battling American infidels and the Shia-led successor regime; across the border you had the Shia Alawite Bashar al Assad using heavy weapons, aircraft and chemicals to kill and repress more Sunni Arabs. The fact that the Sunni-dominated zones in Syria and Iraq are contiguous, with Shiite populations at either terminus, gave ISIS an ideal geographic space to operate in, right in the Arab heartland.
So in contrast to Al Qaeda, ISIS isn’t concerned with striking at the far enemy (the US) in order to establish the right preconditions for the Caliphate; those already exist. ISIS is all about reaping that harvest and establishing the Caliphate in being. It views Shiite control over Sunni lands as intolerable heresy, to be expunged with the maximum violence possible. The alternatives are total subjugation or death. ISIS is not a terrorist organization: it is an insurgency. In fact, it is the armed forces of a proto-state, as they are just as concerned in winning the hearts and minds of their Sunni base as they are in killing their enemies. ISIS not only films beheadings and mass executions, it also films the completion of water projects, food distribution, and provision of medical care for civilians: all the things a future government of the Caliphate will be responsible for.
Al Qaeda is the Islamic State’s father, the Syrian War its mother, and the United States has been the midwife. Osama bin Laden is chortling with delight in his watery grave.
The Least Worst Alternative
There was a moment at the very beginning of the rebellion against Assad when it seemed that he might fall quickly; that the military uprising against him would storm Aleppo and cause the government to collapse. At that point, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) truly was both free and Syrian. Unfortunately, the regime had too much to lose: beyond the personal loss of power, Mr. Assad realized that the fate of this Alawite tribe would be very much in doubt in the face of vengeful reprisals from the people they had murdered and oppressed for 50 years. With the generous support of Russia and Iran providing his depleted troops with heavy weapons and munitions, and the support of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, the regular Syrian army fought back.
And they are winning. As the Civil War has dragged on and the atrocities have mounted, the Free Syrian Army has failed to hold together their coalition. Elements have become radicalized and foreign jihadists have formed their own centers of power. ISIS is one of these, but not the only one. Thus weakened, the FSA has lost control of key cities and transportation hubs to both Assad’s troops and now to ISIS, which doesn’t mind killing its former allies for not being radical enough. Squeezed between these two antagonists, the days of the FSA are numbered, barring a miracle like foreign military intervention on a massive scale. It is now probably too late to save them through the hand-over of heavy weapons; there simply aren’t enough fighters left to turn it around.
How does this impact US policy and objectives in Syria? The initial US objective was to secure the overthrow of Assad by the FSA without use of American military assets, and to support the establishment of a moderate, secular and multi-ethnic government within Syria’s current borders. Whether that objective was ever achievable or if it was a pipedream from the start is today irrelevant. The Free Syrian Army is not going to win, but their destruction is not the end of the business. There will then be a showdown between the forces of the Assad regime and those of the Islamic State. Personally, I would prefer to have Bashar al Assad win, rather than the Islamic State: he is without the shadow of a doubt the least worst alternative.
If we accept these as the unpleasant facts on the ground, US policy should clearly be prioritized as follows:
- At all costs, prevent the formation of an Islamic Caliphate centered around the genocidal Islamic State;
- Prevent the further disintegration of Syria and Iraq, their deterioration into failed states, or their splintering into successor states which also have a high probability of failure;
- End the civil war in Syria as quickly as possible in order to prevent the further suffering of the Syrian people and the further radicalization of the conflict;
- All of this must be accomplished without the use of American ground troops.
All of these objectives are achievable, but the medicine is going to be bitter indeed for the West to swallow. In order to achieve these objectives, the West will have to win the support of three groups we are not on the best of terms with: the Russians, the Iranians and Mr. Assad himself. After years of reviling Bashar the Butcher and insisting that his departure was non-negotiable, we are now going to have to do business with him.
Specifically, the United States and our allies should first attempt to negotiate a cease-fire between the regime’s forces and the Free Syrian Army. If a cease-fire can be secured, the next step should be to convince Mr. Assad to grant an amnesty to the rank and file of the FSA if they lay down their arms. Since no one trusts Mr. Assad to keep his word, or that the mukhabarat won’t be paying high-profile FSA leaders a visit sooner or later, everyone with an official civilian role or with the rank of Lt. Colonel and above in the FSA should have the option of seeking and receiving political asylum in the West. We certainly owe them that much. And Mr. Assad would probably be just as happy to see them go.
If such terms could be had, it would mean that the majority of refugees could at last return to their ruined country and start the process of rebuilding. Most but not all: the Syrian Army will still have to face and destroy ISIS in their territory. Freed from the need to face the FSA and police recently reconquered regions, the Syrian Army would be able to turn its full force against the Islamic State. Unlike the Iraqi Army, the Syrians have been honed by three years of bloody combat and well-supplied by the Russians and Iranians. They are not going to run away or prove ineffective. With the US pounding ISIS from the air in Iraq and the Syrians free to crush the jihadists in the west, life would become very unpleasant and considerably shorter for the followers of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Why would Mr. Assad agree to such a deal when he seems to be winning anyway? There are a number of reasons:
- It would allow Mr. Assad to turn his attention on the threat from ISIS before the Islamic State gains any further in strength;
- It would make for a more secure future power base for his regime should the war end in a favorable settlement than in a mass butchery;
- The West would have to agree to drop the threat of bringing him to trial for crimes against humanity. He and Asma could go shopping in Paris again;
- Money. A negotiated settlement would allow Syria to receive much more in the way of Western reconstruction aid and avoid remaining a pariah state for the next two decades.
And I suspect that Mr. Assad would simply take great pleasure at having the Western diplomats crawl abjectly back to Damascus to deal with him. Revenge and humiliation should not be underestimated as powerful motivators in their own right.
Why would the West agree to such terms and to accept such a humiliation? For two simple reasons:
- Mr. Assad is likely to win anyway. Best to cut the best deal possible for the FSA and people of Syria while there is any leverage to be had whatsoever;
- If Mr. Assad was overthrown, it is not going to be by the FSA. Bashar the Butcher remains a far more palatable alternative to the genocidal policies of Mr. al-Baghdadi.
As Bismarck said: “Politics is like sausage making; best not to see what is going into it.” This is the sausage we’ve been dealt; time to accept it and move on.
The rise of the Islamic State and its success in establishing itself in the power vacuum left by the Syrian Civil War and the weakness of the Iraqi government has introduced a new and fundamentally different challenge to the stability of the Middle East. It is a threat of the first magnitude, one which would – theoretically – require the introduction of US and Allied troops to destroy. We are not, of course, at that point yet: but destroyed it must be and that requires troops. Support for the Kurdish peshmerga might prevent the expansion of ISIS into Northern Iraq, but would not roll them back. The Iraqi government is in disarray and the Iraqi military of dubious quality given the sectarian politics and organizational deficiencies plaguing it. There are only three militaries with the means and proximate enough to take on and dismantle ISIS: the Turks, the Iranians and the Syrians.
The first two are disqualified for obvious reasons. That leaves the Syrians. The Islamic State poses as much of a threat to Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his Alawite followers as it does to everyone else. Jihad makes strange bedfellows, but in the case of ISIS and the desire to snuff them out, the United States and Syria share a common interest.
While accepting the necessity of pragmatism, we should not proceed blindly. The victory of Assad in Syria and the continuation of Shia dominance in Iraqi politics represent important victories for Russian and Iranian interests. It will further strain relations between the United States and the major Gulf States, who have backed the FSA and are already angry at what they see as American temporizing. They will surely attribute the defeat of the rebellion to Western failure to support it; and any deal reached with Assad no matter how pragmatic or beneficial to the Syrian people overall will be viewed as a stab in the back. Cairo and Riyadh might decide that Mr. Putin makes for a better and more consistent friend than whoever is in charge in Washington.
It will ensure the strengthening and perpetuation of Persian influence across the entire Fertile Crescent, from the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates to the Turkish border and the Mediterranean Sea. With large populations of Sunnis living under non-Sunni regimes, the seeds for future radicalization and future Islamic States will be sown. It makes the successful conclusion of negotiations between the United States and Iran even more necessary. Not only must a nuclear deal be reached, but a new modus vivendi must be established that secures the national interests of both states in the region.
Still, better that all this come to pass than having black flags waving over cities from Baghdad to Damascus.
Sources and Notes:
 I don’t think there is any lack of interest or engagement, only a reorientation away from overreliance on active military means
 And is again, though the backing is less certain than before and Mr. Putin’s “no questions asked” Russia is starting to make inroads with arms sales
 Indeed, I have argued for his removal consistently. See my articles: “Kim Jong Il dies and it’s starting to look alot like Christmas…”, “Bye Bye Bashar I, II, III, IV”; and “Poker Night with Vlad and Bashar”.
 Mr. Assad may disagree with this particular point, he has not shown himself to be squeamish about murdering the opposition as the most effective means to silence them