The Syrian Enemy of My Syrian Enemy
How the threat of the Islamic State could bring together the country's warring factions -- if only Barack Obama is willing to seize the opportunity.
For the first time in four years, a regional consensus seems to be forming around Syria. Everyone from Iran and Saudi Arabia to Syria’s warring sides all seem to agree, at least in principle, that the Islamic State is a threat and has to go.
How to accomplish that goal, however, remains fiercely contested. As President Barack Obama spelled out in a press conference last week, the United States "[doesn’t] have a strategy yet" to combat the jihadist group. As multiple regional players rush to present themselves as Washington’s best counterterrorism partner, Obama must choose his friends carefully.
Obama’s decision is further complicated by the fact that each side is wary that American military action would undermine their position. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime welcomed the idea of airstrikes — but warned against any unilateral action to attack the Islamic State without coordinating with the Syrian military. The opposition, meanwhile, fears that cooperation between the United States and the regime on combating the Islamic State will lead to a broader rapprochement with Assad that lets him stay in power.
The fact is, however, that the Syrian regime is the United States’ worst possible partner against the Islamic State. Practically speaking, Assad is unable to offer the help that Washington is looking for: He does not have the manpower, the military capabilities, or the popular support to erase jihadists from the areas they now control. Nor does he have any remaining assets in the jihadists’ strongholds — the areas under Islamic State control have been outside the regime’s hands for anywhere from one to three years.
Assad has consistently lost ground to the Islamic State since July. The group’s recent takeover of Tabqa air base, the regime’s last stronghold in the northern province of Raqqa, stands as an obvious indictment of Assad’s capabilities. Unlike in other bases, where the Syrian military quickly gave up, the regime fought hard for this location, killing an estimated 150 Islamic State fighters. But according to Syrian journalist Abdullah Raja, the battle went according to the jihadist group’s plan, down to the roughly 100 suicide attacks that were required to seize the base.
The capture of Tabqa air base means that Raqqa is the first province to be completely under the Islamic State’s control. The group now has a clear pathway to the rest of northern Syria, including Idlib, one of the last strongholds of the moderate rebels. The base’s fall also dealt a heavy blow to the morale of the regime and its supporters: Tabqa was one of the largest and most important of Syria’s 28 air bases, and the Islamic State’s subsequent massacre of around 200 soldiers led many regime supporters to condemn the army’s top leadership for its weakness. There was a clear change in the tone of formerly stalwart regime supporters; Assad’s cousin, Douraid al-Assad, even demanded the sacking of the defense minister and the chiefs of the army and the air force.
The rebels, on the other hand, are better positioned to take on the Islamic State. While the Assad regime allowed the jihadist threat to fester for months, opposition forces have been fighting the group since last summer. Even though the Islamic State defeated the rebel forces in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor and drove them out of the region, a local tribe recently rebelled against the Islamic State, attacking the jihadists’ bases after the group sent a convoy to arrest men from their village. The Islamic State retaliated by killing hundreds of villagers, and distributing graphic pictures of slaughter. The tribe remains under the threat of extermination, as the jihadist group collectively deemed its members as apostates.
Local communities and armed groups, even if many of them might be currently displaced, have a direct stake in fighting the Islamic State. However, there are already voices within the anti-jihadist opposition condemning the potential airstrikes against the Islamic State because the perception is that they will be coordinated with Assad. An activist who led a campaign against the jihadist group for months, for example, said he would join the Islamic State if intervention comes at the expense of the rebels.
There have been signs that even Assad’s allies understand that the Syrian regime cannot defeat the jihadist group on its own. According to two opposition sources and an Arab diplomat, former Syrian Coalition chief Moaz al-Khatib traveled to Tehran recently as part of Iran’s outreach to Syria’s Sunni opposition. Iranian officials presented a plan that calls for a two-year transition period led by Assad, followed by parliamentary and provincial elections, with the president delegating "some" of his powers to the prime minister. During this period, according to the plan, the opposition and the regime would remain in control of the areas that they now hold.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian, who visited Saudi Arabia on Aug. 26 to discuss the rising threat of the Islamic State, has spearheaded these meetings. Khatib has denied reports that he visited Iran, saying that Iranian officials had not approached him with any offers regarding Syria.
The Iranian proposal appears designed to further divide the Syrian opposition, and to portray Tehran as having a positive vision for Syria. But the proposal is also a tacit admission from Iran that Assad is unable to restore peace to areas under his control, much less to liberated areas.
Arab countries also seem to be leaning toward a coordinated response to the Islamic State — and are hoping that Washington is willing to play a role. Five Arab foreign ministers met in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Aug. 24 to discuss their response to the group’s rise. In the meeting, described by a Saudi official as "practical," the foreign ministers discussed how they could cooperate with Washington. "The ministers discussed how far their countries can go to combat ISIS," the official said. "The plan to work closely with the Americans was actually discussed in June, during [Secretary of State John] Kerry’s visit to the region, when he asked Arab allies to participate in a military action against ISIS."
The same official also said that Egypt might present its own initiative to resolve the Syrian crisis, which would call for a one-year transition led by Assad and a regional security arrangement against extremists. The Arab ministers, however, feared that Washington was only committed to weakening the Islamic State — not eliminating it — which they believe is not enough.
If Washington plays its cards right, it can use the fight against the Islamic State to spur broader political change in Syria. There is already regional will to defeat the jihadists — American action has the power to unite disparate groups around a solution that could end the bloodshed. As Obama develops his strategy to combat the Islamic State, he would do well to keep that in mind.