Last Thursday, the House of Commons debated our next step in the fight against Islamic State. Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defence, called for air-strikes in Syria to fight the militants “at source”, although stated that a successful vote in the Commons would be a precondition of military action.
One of the important questions posed during the debate was whether we believed Assad had a place in Syria in the future. Fallon said: “We do not want to give any succour to Assad. I do not think that anybody in this House wants the Assad regime to continue for a day longer than is necessary; we want Assad to go.”
However, Julian Lewis, chair of the Defence Select Committee, told Fallon: “It is a choice of two evils.” Specifically, he said, the UK has to choose between supporting Islamic State or President Assad. But this is simply not the case: Dr. Lewis presented a false dichotomy.
Islamic State and President Assad are not necessarily enemies. Of course they’re not best friends, but strategically the two have been aiding each other since at least 2013. Last year, the Telegraph reported that IS was selling oil to Assad’s regime in order to raise finances, and that Assad had released imprisoned militants to strengthen jihadist forces. A report last year found that only 6% of Syrian government counterterrorism operations targeted Islamic State. Assad believes that he can pitch the Syrian civil war as a dichotomy, one between his allegedly secular regime and terrorists. By doing so, he hopes to gain our backing in the so-called “War on Terror”. It makes sense therefore for Assad not to attack the extremists too ferociously. His logic is that the more powerful Islamic State are, the more likely we are to support him as the only way to stop the organisation. If we do support Assad, it is very likely he would continue to bolster assistance to IS in order to maintain western backing. Assad’s survival therefore depends on the existence of Islamic State.
But the war is multi-faceted, with much inter-rebel fighting. It is not a war between Assad and jihadists. If we believe it to be so and support Assad, we will only antagonise already angry and alienated Sunni moderates. In an important article, Kyle Orton calls for the West to support these Sunni moderates, something it has been trying to do slowly, but with rather lacklustre end results. Orton rightfully points out that only moderate Sunni forces have been able to previously and viably defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. They will not support our fight against IS if Assad stays in power. Moderate Sunnis will not fight to protect a sectarian ruler who is held up by Iranian and other Shi’a mercenaries. Moreover, if Assad remains in power with our support as an ally against terrorism, this will inevitably be a propaganda victory for Islamic State. We have to give Sunni moderates a reason to fight both Assad and Islamic State. If we do not, more and more will continue to fight for, condone or fail to counter jihadist organisations.
Islamic State also helps the Assad government by providing a distraction for the western media. IS has dominated the news, allowing Assad to continue his barbarism without being scrutinised or reprimanded. Assad’s military has barrel-bombed whole swathes of Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, around 7,000 barrel bombs were dropped by the regime in the first five months of 2015. It said 3,000 people, mostly civilians and including 452 children and 290 women, had been killed. The army destroyed a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Busra with ten barrel bombs last month. In May and June, Assad’s forces hit 40% of hospitals in East Aleppo. His forces have also tortured thousands of civilians. Last year, a Syrian defector known as “Caesar” documented Assad’s killing of 11,000 civilians (between March 2011 and August 2013). Photos show thousands of emaciated, tortured and bloodied corpses. And, in direct violation of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and UN Security Council Resolution 2209, Assad’s forces continue to use chemical weapons unabated.
Therefore, we cannot support Bashar al-Assad. Firstly, we do not recognise his government as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Reversing this position would be humiliating. Secondly, Assad has attempted to portray this war as a dichotomy — between his government and Islamic State. By attacking moderate groups whilst leaving IS relatively free to grow and extend its reach, Assad believes that commentators and politicians will increasingly favour an alliance with him in order to combat the terrorist organisation. Thirdly, if we supported Assad we would only be playing into IS’ propaganda, confirming their notion that this is a clash between Sunni and Shi’ite forces (the latter propped up by the west). Fourthly, we need to support Sunni moderates in order to defeat Islamic State. By enlisting Sunnis in 2006, the Americans were successfully able to counter al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sunnis will not want to attack Islamic State if they know the result will be continued rule by a Shi’ite government. Fifthly, support for Assad will only increase Iran’s dangerous reach. Iran has already destabilised parts of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. In addition, support for Assad is implicit support for Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation responsible for multiple attacks against American forces and Israeli civilians. Lastly, from an ethical and principled view, Assad should not be on his throne in Damascus. He should be on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. His regime has maimed, tortured and massacred thousands and thousands of Syrians. The principle role of a government is to protect its own people. Assad launched attacks against civilians in 2011 and so lost any legitimacy to rule. Our focus on Islamic State means we are less aware of Assad’s atrocities, such as the use of daily barrel bombs and chemical weapon attacks.
The west has to face up to the task in Syria. There needs to be a long-term and durable plan in place. Only if Assad goes can we face up to the task of defeating Islamic State and rebuilding the shattered Syrian state.