By Christoph Reuter
In the fight against Islamic State, the West is considering cooperating with the Syrian army. There’s a hitch though: Assad’s troops aren’t just too weak to defeat IS — they also have no interest in doing so.
Sunday, Nov. 29, was market day in Ariha, a small city located in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. In May, various rebel groups had taken control of the town, which is legendary for its deep-red cherries. Ariha is located far from the front, and even further away from areas under the control of Islamic State (IS). But the Russian air force bombed it anyway.
The people shopping at the market didn’t stand a chance. Just seconds after the roar of the approaching Russian Sukhoi fighter jet first became audible, the first bombs struck. They killed passersby, vegetable sellers and entire families. “I saw torn up bodies flying around and children calling for their parents,” said a civil defense rescuer hours after the attack.
One day prior, just before 10 a.m., it was the turn of Safarana, a small city northeast of Homs. A first barrel bomb, dropped out of a Syrian regime helicopter, killed a man and a young girl and injured more than a dozen others. The victims had hardly been delivered to the clinic when two more barrel bombs exploded in front of the hospital, operated by Doctors without Borders, killing patients and paramedics who were caring for those who had just arrived.
Such attacks are nothing new in Syria. Jets from both Syria and Russia continue unhindered to bomb markets, hospitals, bakeries and pretty much any other place where people gather in the provinces that are under rebel control. Two years ago, Russia voted in favor of United Nations Resolution 2139, which was supposed to bring an end to attacks on Syrian civilians. But that hasn’t prevented Russia from flying hundreds of exactly those kinds of bombing raids itself since the end of September. And that, in turn, hasn’t prevented France from talking to Russia about the possibility of conducting coordinated air strikes and joining together in the fight against Islamic State.
Just three weeks after the terror attacks in Paris, Europe has prepared itself for entry into this war against Islamic State. But it is a war that unites many radically divergent elements — and one for which there is no strategy. French jets, joined recently by British warplanes, are now flying sorties against IS in Syria. And Germany will soon join them. German Tornado jets, equipped with high-resolution imaging technology, are to help identify targets while A-310 aircraft will refuel warplanes in the air. In addition, a German frigate is to provide protection to a French aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.
Partnership with the Dictator
But beyond Germany’s limited contribution to the air war, Berlin and Paris are discussing a vastly more sensitive and extremely uncertain engagement on the ground. Meanwhile, the French government — which had long been a vocal opponent of Syrian President Bashar Assad — recently introduced the idea of a possible partnership with the dictator and his troops in a joint alliance to fight IS.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently said somewhat awkwardly of Syria: “There are parts of the troops, that one could very well — like in the Iraq example, where the training of local troops was very successful — emulate here too.” Her spokesperson quickly made it clear that such a concept doesn’t apply to troops under Assad’s command. But the idea of cooperating with Assad is one under discussion: Islamic State terror in Europe would seem to have partially rehabilitated the dictator.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even proposed that fighting between the Syrian opposition and regime troops could be “discontinued, for a start.” Steinmeier’s words reveal his frustration at the fact that the two sides are engaging each other in a war of attrition instead of joining forces against IS. But the reality on the ground refuses to conform to his aspirations.
Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to identify such a potential partner for Europe on the Syrian battlegrounds. Assad’s official army is now just one of many fighting forces on the side of the regime — and is also suffering from poor morale and a lack of soldiers. For many young Syrians from areas under government control, forced conscription has become the most significant motivator for embarking on the refugee trail to Europe.
This is also one reason why Russia’s initial strategy for Syria is not finding success. Moscow had been hoping that massive air strikes would force rebel fighters in opposition-held areas to abandon the fight. That would then pave the way for Assad’s ground forces to advance and take back those regions. But in October, when Assad’s tank units rolled into those areas that Russian jets had previously bombed, they didn’t get very far. Instead of fleeing, rebels there had dug in instead.
Syrian Fighting Force?
Using TOW anti-tank missiles supplied by the US, in addition to Russian anti-tank weapons that had been captured or acquired from corrupt officers, the rebels struck some 20 tanks before the others turned back. The army’s ground offensive south of Aleppo likewise quickly ground to a halt. Meanwhile, rebels near Hama were able to finally take control of a long-contested city.
Assad’s army isn’t just vulnerable, it also isn’t strictly a Syrian force anymore. For the last two years, the forces on his side have increasingly been made up of foreigners, including Revolutionary Guards from Iran, members of Iraqi militias and Hezbollah units from Lebanon. They are joined at the front by Shiite Afghans from the Hazara people, up to 2 million of whom live in Iran, mostly as illegal immigrants. They are forcibly conscripted in Iranian prisons and sent to Syria — according to internal Iranian estimates, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 of them fighting in the country. The situation leads to absurd scenes: In the southern Syrian town of Daraa, rebels began desperately searching for Persian interpreters after an offensive of 2,500 Afghans suddenly began approaching.
It is the first international Shiite jihad in history, one which has been compensating for the demographic inferiority of Assad’s troops since 2012. The alliance has prevented Assad’s defeat, but it hasn’t been enough for victory either. Furthermore, the orders are no longer coming exclusively from the Syrian officer corps. Iranian officers control their own troops in addition to the Afghan units, and they plan offensives that also involve Syrian soldiers. Hezbollah commanders coordinate small elite units under their control. Iraqis give orders to Iraqi and Pakistani militia groups. And the Russians don’t let anyone tell them what to do.
The odd alliances aren’t just limited to the Shiite fighters. Anti-Assad rebels were recently surprised to see American Humvees — a vehicle that quickly became a symbol of IS attacks after the Islamists captured hundreds of them in Iraq in summer 2014 — rolling towards them from government-controlled territory. “We thought only IS had captured Humvees, but the Shiite militias fighting alongside Assad use them too,” said Osama Abu Zaid, a local legal advisor to various groups belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Elsewhere, attacks by Assad supporters and by Islamic State have likewise taken place with astonishing temporal and geographic proximity to each other. Near the northern Syrian city of Tal Rifaat in early November, for example, an IS suicide attacker detonated his car bomb at an FSA base, though without causing much damage. Just half an hour later, two witnesses say, Russian jets attacked the same base for the first time.
Was it a coincidence? Likely not. There have been dozens of cases since 2014 in which Assad’s troops and IS have apparently been coordinating attacks on rebel groups, with the air force bombing them from above and IS firing at them from the ground. In early June, the US State Department announced that the regime wasn’t just avoiding IS positions, but was actively reinforcing them.
Such cooperation isn’t surprising. The rebels — in all their variety, from nationalists to radical Islamists — represent the greatest danger to both Assad and IS. And if the two sides want to survive in the long term, the Syrian dictator and the jihadists are useful to each other. From Assad’s perspective, if the rebels were to be vanquished, the world would no longer see an alternative to the Syrian dictator. But the rebels are also primarily Sunni, as are two-thirds of the Syrian populace — meaning that, from the IS perspective, once the rebels were defeated, the populace would be faced either with submission and exile, or they would join IS.
In short, a Syria free of rebels would put both Assad and Islamic State in powerful positions, though not powerful enough to defeat the other. Still, such a situation would be vastly preferable to the alternatives: Being toppled from power (Assad), or being destroyed (IS).
Relative to those two camps, the Syrian opposition in the West is hardly being paid attention to anymore. That is in part a function of their confusing structure: There are dozens of larger rebel groups and hundreds of smaller units, mostly at a local level. They cooperate, but alliances often crumble due to the ideological differences of their foreign supporters.
British Prime Minister David Cameron presented numbers last week indicating the existence of some 70,000 moderate rebels. In addition, he said, there were two large Islamist groups: Ahrar al-Sham in the north, with 15,000 fighters; and Jaish al-Islam north of Damascus, with 12,500 militiamen — and the al-Qaida-allied group Nusra Front, with its 6,000 to 10,000 men. Cameron had hardly finished reciting the numbers before questions were raised as to whether the 70,000 he cited were prepared to partner with the West in the battle against Islamic State. They have, though, been fighting against Islamic State since January 2014 — but have primarily focused their fight on Assad.
Significant Moral Question
Sending ground troops into such a situation, or even lending legitimacy to the Russian-Syrian offensive, would unwittingly transform Europe into Assad’s vassals. Beyond that, the dictator would have to be given troop reinforcements so that he could halfway successfully advance against the enemy.
Even if one were to ignore all of the military problems, there is also a significant moral question: Would the West really want to go into battle with a regime that has used, aside from nuclear weapons, pretty much every weapon imaginable against its own populace in an effort to cling to power? And once Islamic State is defeated and driven away, what should happen with the cities — such as Raqqa, Deir el-Zour, al-Bab, Manbij and Abu Kamal — that they now hold? All those cities had been take over by local rebels long before Islamic State moved in. Who should such areas be given to?
Certainly not to Assad. That would merely turn the clock back on this war by three years. Rebel groups would once again try to throw out Assad’s troops — and ultimately Islamic State would strike again.
Making matters even more complicated is the fact that IS, the declared enemy-number-one of international efforts, is receding from the focus of two major foreign actors in Syria. Ever since Turkey shot down the Russian jet, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin have been engaged in a proxy war in the Aleppo province, a conflict which has seen Kurdish IS-opponents exchanging fire with Sunni IS-opponents in recent days. Furthermore, Russian jets have stepped up their bombing campaign against Syrian settlements along the border with Turkey while the Turkish secret service is sending weapons and ammunition into the fight against the Kurds. Both presidents have fragile egos, and Syria has emerged as the perfect playing field for them to get Kurdish YPG units and rebel groups — both of which had thus far focused their efforts on Islamic State — to fight against each other.
And Islamic State? The jihadists had been facing significant pressure in recent months from ongoing air strikes launched by the US-led coalition. Not because it had lost ground, but because it had been unable to continue its advance. The group’s exploitative economy and its propaganda image both make a steady stream of victories necessary. The “caliphate” is facing financial difficulties and is also having trouble recruiting more foreign fighters. An expansion of allied air strikes could likely increase the pressure, while cooperation with Assad would put Islamic State in a perfect strategic position.
But for as long as Islamic State’s enemies are busy fighting each other, the Islamists can carry on as before. Like last Wednesday, when the jihadists took over the small city of Kafra north of Aleppo — not long after it had been bombed by Russian jets.