The recent attacks in Paris have underscored the need to defeat the Islamic State and reignited debates over how to do so. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and once again we are hearing that “we may have to hold our noses” and work with people like the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This is not a new suggestion. Since shortly after American forces began bombing the Islamic State in August 2014, there have been voices suggesting that “the U.S. should help Assad to fight ISIS, the greater evil.” This argument was not strategically sound then, and the events in Paris have not made it so. Western leaders need to avoid appeasing populist demands with strategic blunders.
Proponents of supporting Assad see him as a viable partner in defeating the Islamic State. A hardnosed realist may acknowledge that Assad is unpleasant, but may still be inclined to put aside such messy moral qualms to defeat the Islamic State, which represents a critical security interest. The advantage of this approach seems obvious at first. It combines a credible fighting force on the ground with American air power. This combination has been a winning approach in the past and is generally what Western strategists prefer. The problem with this plan is not its value-free analysis, but rather that it ignores what FPRI’s James Kurth describes as the “realities of the mentalities of the localities.”
The Islamic State originally formed in Iraq. Its subsequent foothold in Syria did not emerge in a vacuum. It resulted from a political context in which Assad’s forces were killing Syrians en masse. Despite Western narratives about the brutality of the Islamic State, the Assad regime is responsible for many more deaths than all Syrian opposition groups (including the Islamic State) combined. Even over the past year, when the Islamic State has been at the apex of its power, the Assad regime has been much more efficient in carrying out atrocities. In the first half of 2015, for example, the regime killed seven times more Syrians than the Islamic State. Assad targets civilians, tortures, and has used chemical weapons against his own people. These circumstances have driven many Syrians to support groups such as the Islamic State, which they view as the only force that is able to stand up to Assad. In other words, Assad is the problem. His continued presence in Syria is the sustenance on which the Islamic State thrives. Any viable solution in the near-term needs to alter this political context by offering a vision of the future for the Syrian people that does not include living under Assad’s yoke. Without such a vision, the political context on the ground will remain the same and groups like the Islamic State will be very difficult to defeat. This has been one of the main obstacles to Western efforts in Syria so far.
Currently, the American-led coalition is targeting the Islamic State with airpower as well as supporting Syrian opposition forces that are fighting the Islamic State on the ground. Some limited special operations forces have also been used in aid and assist missions as well as direct action. These efforts have not been insignificant. According to the latest Department of Defense numbers, the American-led coalition has conducted over eight thousand airstrikes, damaging or destroying over sixteen thousand targets and killing twenty to thirty thousand fighters. This has degraded the Islamic State’s capabilities, but not enough to prevent it from holding large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, or from reaching outside Syria to attack Russian airliners and Parisian concert halls. It has also not stemmed the flow of refugees out of Syria. The biggest obstacle that the American-led coalition has faced is its inability to convince enough Syrians (and Iraqis and foreign fighters) to stop supporting the Islamic State and to instead to join the fight against it. Thus far, the Islamic State has been able to replenish its ranks as fast as the Western-led coalition has been able to deplete them.
The problem is political. Because Syrians are being killed by Assad at much higher rates than they are being killed by the Islamic State, Assad is a much bigger threat to them. Therefore, the current American strategy asks these Syrians to ignore their primary threat (the Assad regime), and instead focus on their secondary threat (the Islamic State). That is a difficult sell and it has not worked thus far. Furthermore, even if the strategy worked and the fighters of the Islamic State were crushed, it would not change the political context in which the Islamic State emerged. As post-surge Iraq showed, if the political context that produces groups such as the Islamic State is not dealt with, similar groups will rise in their place. In other words, the Islamic State should be seen as a symptom of a political context. Fighting the symptom will not kill the disease. Western leaders seeking a way forward after the Paris attacks need to figure out a way to remove Assad without creating further chaos on the ground. That is a tall order, but it is the only way to create a political context in which a lasting peace is possible.