The Cable

Kerry: Assad and ISIS Have ‘Symbiotic’ Relationship

The Obama administration’s emerging strategy to dislodge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is focusing on tying the strongman to the self-proclaimed Islamic State and disputing the idea that coalition airstrikes inside Syria are helping Assad. "I’m aware that some believe airstrikes against ISIL in Syria will have the perverse effect of assisting the country’s long-time dictator," ...

Photo by Dakota Fine
Photo by Dakota Fine

The Obama administration’s emerging strategy to dislodge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is focusing on tying the strongman to the self-proclaimed Islamic State and disputing the idea that coalition airstrikes inside Syria are helping Assad.

"I’m aware that some believe airstrikes against ISIL in Syria will have the perverse effect of assisting the country’s long-time dictator," Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday, using one of the acronyms by which the group is also known. "But that assumption is based on a misreading of the political reality in Syria. In fact, the Assad regime and ISIL are dependent on one another."

Not only do the two lean on each other to stay in power but "they are symbiotic," Kerry said in a speech delivered at Foreign Policy’s annual Transformational Trends conference.  Assad "purports to be the last line of defense against ISIL. Both are stronger as a result."

The Obama administration’s strategy against the Islamic State initially focused on stopping the militants’ advances in Iraq but recently the U.S. and its partners have realized that without degrading ISIL’s stronghold inside Syria, the group can’t be defeated inside Iraq. The anti-ISIL coalition is also seeing that moderate rebel groups fighting the Islamic State and who could potentially be an alternative to Assad are facing mounting attacks by both the Syrian regime and ISIL militants.

"The coalition’s decision to carry out airstrikes in Syria came in response to a request from Iraq for help in defending against ISIL’s aggression–a job that will be far harder if the terrorists can duck across the border for reinforcements, money and supplies," Kerry said.

Syrian rebels being trained and equipped by the CIA were routed by al Qaeda-affiliated groups including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Washington Post reported. The Free Syrian Army was losing its stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Idlib and that may complicate U.S. efforts to ramp up a program to recruit and train thousands of rebels, the Post stated. As a result, the Obama administration is assessing whether it should step up covert aid to rebels while an overt Pentagon plan to train opposition groups gets underway, the Post reported.

Kerry, who left the conference to fly to London to attend talks on halting Iran’s nuclear program ahead of a self-imposed Nov. 24 deadline for reaching a deal, said that despite Americans’ skepticism about getting involved in yet another war in the Middle East, the region matters to the U.S. economy and its national security.

Kerry highlighted the Syrian government’s strategy of targeting moderate rebels while largely neglecting Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated militants. "Assad has relentlessly bombed areas held by the moderate opposition while doing little to hinder ISIL," he said.

Although it is true that Syrian moderates bear the brunt of the regime’s firepower, that is in part because the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State has freed the dictator’s hands. Prior to coalition strikes against the Islamic State in September, Syrian warplanes targeted a number of ISIL strongholds in eastern Syria. However, now that U.S.-led coalition forces have taken up that task, Assad has stopped attacking ISIL.

Since Friday, the U.S. has conducted 11 airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria, hitting seven of the group’s positions and four staging areas, U.S. Central Command said on Monday. The attacks focused on the Turkish border city of Kobani and an Islamic State crude oil collection facility near Dayr Az Zawr.

Although the U.S. air campaign has slowed ISIS’s advance and disrupted its operations, it has also fueled anger among civilians in ISIS-held areas such as Raqqa, where the air campaign has created electricity blackouts and increased food and fuel prices.

The anti-ISIL coalition also is stepping up efforts to cut off the militant group’s financial base that helps them pay their fighters, Kerry said.

"By working backwards, we have been able to map where most" of the group’s oil sales come from "and develop ideas about how to stop it,"  Kerry said. "We will also continue to bomb ISIL’s oil infrastructure."

The militant group’s intake of money from extortion and smuggling is dwindling and that’s hurting their ability to pay their fighters, Kerry said. "We’ve already seen a 75 percent cut in pay for ISIL fighters in Mosul."

The coalition has managed to shrink ISIL’s oil revenues from about $1 million a day to a few million dollars a week, David Cohen, Treasury Department under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence told U.S. lawmakers last week.

"We have information that they pay their fighters about $1,000 a month," Cohen said. "That comes to about $360 million a year in just the expense for fighters."  

Still, the Treasury Department is moving slowly to choke off the militants’ financial base because shutting off the banking system used by ISIL could hurt the local population.

"Our interest is not in shutting down all the economic activity in the areas where ISIL normally operates," Cohen said last month. "They are subjugating huge swaths of the population, millions of people, who are still trying to live their lives. And banks, as everybody knows, are important lubricants for the economy."  

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