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“Why Don’t We Go After Assad in Syria First?” – Thoughts on Countering ISIS Part 4

Author:  Clint Watts
September 29, 2014

“Why Don’t We Go After Assad in Syria First?” – Thoughts on Countering ISIS Part 4

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is derived from Clint Watts’ Ginsburg Lecture delivered at the National Liberty Museum on September 16, 2014.)

Two years ago, amidst a long U.S. presidential campaign, both political parties largely avoided the Syrian conflict as a foreign policy issue.  The Obama campaign still had not shaken off the sting of helping topple the Qaddafi regime in Libya only to see the country crumble into chaos leading to the Benghazi fiasco.  On the other side, debate on the Syrian civil war would remind voters of Iraq, the Bush administration, the Republican party, and thus by association the Romney campaign would suffer.  Thus, war-weary Americans and their European allies avoided the Syrian conflict hoping that good outcomes would arise naturally.  More than two years later, the West continues to tip toe around the Syrian civil war despite the rise of new adversaries spawned by the West’s collective policy of inaction. 

The latest jihadi threat known as ISIS has infected the Middle East for one reason above all others – the perpetuation of the Syrian civil war.  Two years ago, institution of a No-Fly-Zone would have muted Syria’s air force and leveled the playing field but the U.S. settled instead for limited small arms for the Free Syrian Army fearing the potential blowback of more useful heavy weapons or air defense missiles falling into the hands of al Qaeda linked militants.  The cautious American approach achieved nothing as hordes of more extreme militants backed by Gulf donors swallowed the FSA leading to two unfortunate consequences; the sustainment of the Assad regime in western Syria and the rise of ISIS in eastern Syria. 

The Obama administration and the media have wrongly labeled ISIS a cancer, but it is only a symptom of the real cancer, which is the Assad regime.  ISIS cannot be defeated without addressing the Syrian civil war and the safe haven it has produced for extremists.  Here are many reasons why the U.S., if it truly wants to destroy ISIS, should pursue an end to the Assad regime and the Syria Civil War as a first step in defeating ISIS.

  • Assad: Aren’t WMDs a red line? – In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq based in large part on the belief that Saddam Hussein might be producing chemical weapons.  In 2013, Assad’s Syrian regime actually used chemical weapons on civilian populations.  The American presumption that Saddam’s Iraq had chemical weapons ultimately brought al Qaeda to Iraq and created a safe haven where the U.S. today pursues al Qaeda’s spawn ISIS, a group that rose to power for appearing to fight an Assad regime in Syria that actually used chemical weapons.  It’s madness folks!
  • Foreign fighter recruitment – Never in world history has a conflict generated such a migration of foreign fighters. As long as the Syrian civil war persists, the ranks of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra will fill with jihadi recruits.  The U.S. can bomb indefinitely, but the flow of fighters will remain.
  • Assad is an Iranian ally – Iran poses a very real nuclear and cyber threat to the U.S., one far greater than ISIS. Iran is desperately straining to keep a foothold in the Levant.  By attacking ISIS first, the U.S. strengthens Assad’s hand and by extension Iran. 
  • Confirms the al Qaeda narrative of ‘Far Enemy’ (U.S.) propping up ‘Near Enemy’ regimes (Syria) – As I noted this past weekend in an article at Politico, the U.S. pursuit of al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria while ignoring Assad further confirms the jihadi narrative that America is the ‘Far Enemy’ propping up ‘Near Enemy’ apostates.   
  • Double Standard on Atrocities – Americans showed great alarm at ISIS beheading two journalists, while turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands of Syrians killed by gruesome bombings and torture. The world sees the atrocities promoted by ISIS social media, but due to the lack of journalism inside Syria, the world has ignored an equally heinous slaughter committed by Assad.
  • Plays to Assad’s double game – Assad knows the U.S. fears jihadi black flags and scary ISIS YouTube videos.  Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Assad has argued the world should support him to prevent the rise of al Qaeda. Some indications suggest either Assad or Iran actually supported ISIS’s growth. Max Fisher at Vox wrote a great article detailing the Assad strategy with regards to ISIS.

As airstrikes continue, the U.S. and the West as a whole must realize there will be no enduring successful outcome for defeating ISIS and al Qaeda without ending the Syrian civil war – something that requires the confrontation of Assad.  The U.S. seems unlikely to take this action, in fear of riling Iran and their ally of exceptional aggression, Russia.  Maybe the Obama administration has included toppling Assad in their long-run strategy, but I’m skeptical. 

For other parts of the “Thoughts on Countering ISIS” series see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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