Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech to the United Nations 28 September was, in many
ways, both a triumph for his regime and vindication of his strategy in Syria and the Middle East
at-large. Putin expounded a vision for the international system emphasizing state sovereignty
and, more narrowly, providing support for the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Widely
considered to be a proxy of Russia, Assad’s beleaguered regime has increasingly relied on
financial support and materiel from Russia as the Syrian civil war has dragged on. What had
ostensibly started as a peaceful series of protests by the Syrian people in order to establish a
liberal democracy against an authoritarian regime, has now degenerated into a three-way civil
war in which both the government and pro-democracy groups are on the defensive. With over
310,000 casualties already attributed to the war1, the Syrian people need not suffer a further
extension of this bloody conflict for the sake of a militarily ineffective pro-democracy rebel
coalition. Instead, the Western world should recognize that the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) is
both the greater evil and a greater danger to world peace than Assad’s regime ever will be.
Furthermore, by supporting Assad, the United States may gain enough leverage to persuade the
Syrian government to make changes in their human rights policy. The United States and its allies
should therefore join Russia and support the regime of Bashar al-Assad to defeat the Islamic
State and bring stability back to that embattled part of the world.
What then, are the geopolitical, social, and economic consequences of an Islamic State victory
for the Middle East and the world at-large? Judging by its past actions, the process of achieving
victory for the ‘Caliphate’ would be extraordinarily bloody and could displace millions more
people than have already been affected by the Syrian Civil War. Cities that the Islamic State
have governed afford an insightful glimpse as to the nature of Caliphate rule. Take, for example,
the city of Mosul, captured by IS in June 2014. Women are forced to cover their entire body, for
fear of being flogged by so-called ‘inspectors’; minorities are charged extraordinary taxes, forced
to flee, or are simply murdered. Flogging is the minimum punishment for minor offenses and
torture is routinely used in municipal prisons; and children are indoctrinated with Islamic State
ideology in school instead of receiving a varied education2. Furthermore, Islamic State-held
territory would surely be used by terrorists as a base for those who seek to attack Western
targets, much the same as Afghanistan during Taliban rule. While the Caliphate does offer
relative stability compared to other conflict zones throughout the Middle East, it would not be
prudent take a hands-off approach that could lead to a victory for the Islamic State while other
options are still available.
While certainly beleaguered, the military of Bashar Al-Assad and allied groups, including
Russia, Hezbollah, and the Iranian Quds Force, are arguably the most powerful actors currently
opposing the Islamic State. The Syrian Government is heavily reliant upon its elite, Alawite-
dominated units due to concerns about defections. However, the military’s rapidly depleting
manpower reserves are significantly bolstered by numerous pro-Government militias who are
taking on an increasingly important role in the conflict3. Furthermore, the arrival of the Russian
Air Force is sure to have a large effect, particularly because the Government Air Force is
suffering high rates of attrition as the Civil War continues. While the overall impact of Russian
air intervention is yet to be seen, there have been a number of early successes against Islamic
State targets, potentially foreshadowing its future effectiveness4, although it is widely
acknowledged that the Russian Air Force targets other groups aside from the Islamic State5. In
contrast to the relative military strength enjoyed by the Government, pro-democracy rebel groups
such as the Free Syrian Army are fractured (even to the point of infighting between its own
units) and lack the war resources available to other groups6. Although combat-proven, Kurdish
leadership has not expressed much interest outside of what they would consider to be
‘Kurdistan’, and may view the civil war as an opportunity to gain independence. Finally, the
Islamic State and allied Islamist militias have a large manpower pool and modern equipment
largely stolen from retreating Iraqi army forces. While exact estimates as to the size of the
fighting force of the Islamic State vary widely, the lower range of estimates would suggest that
the group can muster up to 50,000 fighters, with some arguing that the Caliphate has up to
200,000 fighters at its disposal7. Pro-democracy rebel groups thus have a numerical and
equipment disadvantage compared to the Syrian Government and the Islamic State.
It is true that the Syrian Government has committed heinous human rights violations to maintain
its power, and this should not be forgotten. However, almost every armed group currently active
in Syria can be found guilty of a multitude of war crimes, perhaps no group more so than the
Islamic State. As the Western coalition of nations has determined that respect for human rights is
a priority in any eventual outcome of the Syrian Civil War, it would be far easier to ensure that
the Western human rights agenda is put in place if Bashar al-Assad, a known actor, remained in
power. The alternative would be negotiation with an amorphous pro-democracy rebel coalition,
and past experiences with other ‘pro-democracy’ groups formed during the Arab Spring have
proven difficult; or negotiation with the Islamic State, an entirely distasteful and probably
unproductive (based upon similar negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan) proposition.
Cooperation with Assad’s regime also affords an opportunity to re-engage with Russia and Iran,
a foreign policy goal that President Obama has expressed a desire to achieve. While cooperation
with the ‘Russian coalition’ currently in combat throughout Syria will not make an ally of
Vladimir Putin overnight, it would undoubtedly go some distance in healing the rift that has
formed between the United States and Russia. At the minimum, dialogue with Russia through a
military attaché would ensure that the foreign militaries active in Syria would not run counter-
productive military operations, and perhaps allow those militaries active on the ground to focus
on the Islamic State and perhaps move towards a united Syria policy.
Providing any kind of support to Bashar al-Assad’s government will doubtlessly be a hard
proposition for Western governments to stomach, but it seems that in the absence of political will
to put Western ‘boots on the ground’ the effectiveness of ‘politically appropriate’ rebel groups
will continue to diminish. It seems then that United States and its partners active in Syria are
faced with two realistic outcomes: either continue to support ineffective pro-democracy rebel
groups that could lead to the formation of a hostile Islamist state in Syria and northern Iraq; or
work with Syrian government forces to eradicate the threat of the Islamic State and potentially
influence the political structure of post-civil war Syria. If the United States judges the Caliphate
to be the larger threat to world peace (and it should), then it should lead its western coalition into
rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad.
1 Editorial Board. “310,000 Killed Since the Beginning of the Syrian Revolution”. Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights. 16 April 2015.
2 “Inside Mosul: What is Life Like Under the Islamic State?”. BBC Online. British Broadcasting Corporation. 9
June 2015. Web. 3 October 2015.
3 Jenkins, B. “The Dynamics of Syria’s Civil War”. The Rand Corporation. 2014.
4 “Russian Air Force Hit 10 ISIS Targets in Last 24 Hours”. Russia Today. Russia Today. 4 October 2015. Web. 5
5 Marszal, A. “Russia Launches Missiles at ‘ISIL Targets’ from Caspian Sea Warships as Assad Launches Ground
Offensive”. The Telegraph Online. The Telegraph. 7 October 2015. Web. 7 October 2015.
6 Jenkins, B. “The Dynamics of Syria’s Civil War”. The Rand Corporation. 2014.
7 Cockburn, P. “Islamist Militants Have Army of 200,000, Claims Senior Kurdish Leader”. The Independent Online.
The Independent. 16 November 2014. Web. 5 October 2015.