Many Western observers have been seduced into the false narrative that we face two incompatible options in Syria: Either we combat the regime of President Bashar Assad, or we wage a full-blooded assault on Daesh.
People who should know better have implied that the recent US missile strike undermined the goal of defeating Daesh. Such a claim would only make sense if there had been serious efforts by Russia and the regime to combat Daesh, or if there were any prospects of Assad being a serious partner against the group.
Assad, Russia and Iran successfully exploited the world’s fear of terrorism to hijack the narrative of the Syrian revolution. Six years later, nobody talks about the popular uprising by ordinary Syrians desiring a better life. International solidarity with moderate rebels has ebbed away, forcing them to surrender the battlefield to their extremist rivals.
Daesh and Assad profit from each other’s existence, very literally in the case of Assad purchasing oil from Daesh-held territory. Jihadists benefited from an amnesty at the outset of the uprising, when Assad freed extremist detainees as a ploy to undermine the moderate nature of the uprising. Most of these figures immediately joined existing terrorist entities or established their own, exactly as Assad knew they would.
Misconceptions about Syria are exacerbated by Western news channels putting forward supposed “experts” who have no grasp of Syria’s history and geography, and have no contact with people on the ground. The resulting narrative is a lazy mixture of myths and platitudes that gets us further away from solving the crisis.
When Western leaders say Assad must go, they imply that power could be passed to someone within his regime, but many regime members have more blood on their hands than Assad, and are members of his extended family. The regime is a mafia-like minority within the Alawite minority. Such a minority regime is necessarily brutal in order to cling to power.
Thus the only viable formula is a democratically selected leadership representing the majority of Syrians and the remarkable diversity of Syrian society. Such a leadership would neither be excessively pro-Western nor necessarily anti-Russian. By facilitating a transition, Moscow could seek to win over Syrians via trade and reconstruction rather than by force.
The fundamental facilitator of terrorism in Syria is Bashar Assad’s genocidal regime. As long as the West insists on only treating the symptoms of this conflict, the battle against Daesh will continue to be the equivalent of giving a cancer patient a couple of Panadols and advising plenty of rest.
The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, did not mince words in recent days. “We need to see Russia choose to side with the civilized world over an Assad government that brutally terrorizes its own people,” she said. We know Russia will not willingly abandon Assad, so Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow was largely futile, with both sides casting accusations at each other.
As long as Russia protects Assad’s regime, peace is impossible, so the Trump administration has to match its toughened rhetoric with a muscular diplomatic and military strategy to force Moscow’s hand.
Even if Assad wanted to combat Daesh, his military has been so weakened that he relies on sectarian paramilitaries, Iranian proxies, Hezbollah and Russia. Assad is the puppet of Moscow and Tehran, not the strongman he wants us to believe.
His Syria is the perfect environment for cultivating terrorists — an oppressive regime too weak to control its own territory. Assad is Daesh’s best recruitment tool for disaffected Syrians seeking empowerment or revenge. As long as he clings to power, defeating Daesh is futile; extremists will simply retreat and consolidate their position when the time is right.
Last year in Libya the warring sides temporarily united to force Daesh out of Sirte, but after fighting recommenced jihadists are preparing to recapture territory. Likewise in Iraq Daesh is on its last legs, but the seeds of future radicalism are obvious as pro-Iran politicians and militias drive angry young men back into the arms of jihadists, Baathists, separatists and warlords.
The jihadists are mere symptoms of underlying dysfunctionalities in these states. As long as Assad remains, Syria will be a fertile breeding ground for terrorism. As long as Iran is allowed to meddle with impunity, the social fabric of these nations will be undermined, while proxy militias act as states-within-states and purge enemy communities with impunity.
I would not want to downplay the massive efforts required to roll back and defeat Daesh. But as long as the West insists on only treating the symptoms of these conflicts, the battle against Daesh will continue to be the equivalent of giving a cancer patient a couple of Panadols and advising plenty of rest.
Rather than worrying about whether Assad and Russia can ever be fulsome US allies in the war on terror after last week’s missile strike, Western leaders debating how to defeat Daesh must acknowledge that the fundamental facilitator of terrorism in Syria is Assad’s genocidal regime. The road to Raqqa necessarily passes through Damascus.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.