Rapprochement with Assad

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.

Image courtesy of PAN Photo, ©2009, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of PAN Photo, ©2009, some rights reserved.

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

October 2015.

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.