IS threat could change policy toward Assad

Osama Al Sharif
Osama Al Sharif

Osama Al Sharif

By: Osama Al Sharif

For the first time since the Syrian crisis broke out in March 2011 there are indications that policies toward the Damascus regime are about to change drastically. But it is not because President Bashar Assad has altered his position from the uprising against him or from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in exile. And it is not because Assad’s forces have made a military breakthrough on the ground. It is the growing threat of the Islamic State (IS) that is forcing all players, both regional and international, to revise their policies.

The dramatic rise of the IS in the past few years has become a game changer not only in Iraq, where the IS has spread its control over most of Iraq’s Sunni governorates and has threatened Iraqi Kurdistan, but in Syria as well. On Monday the IS fighters took over the strategic military airport of Tabqa in Raqqa governorate in eastern Syria dealing a stunning defeat to Assad’s forces. The entire governorate, twice the size of Lebanon, is now under the control of the IS. IS forces have presence in Der Al-Zour and have expelled other rebel fighters from many towns and villages in eastern and northern Syria.

For years President Assad claimed that he was fighting terrorists in Syria on behalf of the region and the world. The US, which, earlier this month, started bombing IS positions in northern Iraq, is said to be considering hitting IS strongholds in Syria as well. Last week US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned that the extremists who executed American journalist James Foley are “beyond just a terrorist group” and “beyond anything that we’ve seen.”

Earlier US Gen. Martin Dempsey said that once he determines the IS militants in Iraq have become a direct threat to the US homeland, he will recommend the US military move directly against the group in Syria. British Prime Minister David Cameron had said that IS must be stopped and UK should be prepared to use military prowess against them.

Since the IS swept through northern Iraq earlier this year, taking the city of Mosul and forcing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians and other minorities to flee toward Kurdistan, attention to the Syrian civil war began to wane. Attempts to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis, through talks in Geneva, had failed. The UN and others suspended their diplomatic efforts but the fighting on the ground continued with the death toll reaching more than 190,000 by the end of July. Government forces had made some breakthroughs in Homs and Aleppo, while Free Syrian Army (FSA) retook some positions in Al-Qalamoun. But quietly IS has been spreading its control over much of eastern Syria, emerging as the most potent and organized power in the field.

The West continued to debate whether to arm the so-called moderate rebel forces in Syria and there were reports that France had supplied the FSA with sophisticated weapons recently. President Barack Obama was criticized by opponents for his poor Syria policy and refusal to arm the rebels which allowed IS to grow and become more lethal.

With the West now moving to quell the IS in Iraq, without committing land troops, attention is focusing again on Syria. But this time there are signs that collaboration with Damascus would be possible in order to deal with IS. It was probably ironic that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that Syria itself should be included in the Friends of Syria group and that the West should reconsider its policy toward President Assad.

And on Monday Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moallem said his country welcomed any potential military strikes by the US in Syria targeting the IS bases, but warned that this should be done in coordination with the Syrian government. He said aerial bombing alone would not end the IS threat and called on Syria’s neighbors to change their policy toward his country.

These developments have forced the Arab members of the Friends of Syria to meet in Jeddah earlier this week apparently to discuss possible changes in policy toward Damascus. Little information came out of that meeting. The threat of IS is being felt by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and even Iran. The latter had sent its deputy foreign minister to Riyadh on Monday in what is the first visit to Saudi Arabia by a senior Iranian government official since the June 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani.

It is still early to stipulate if combining regional and international efforts to fight the IS will lead to the rehabilitation of the Assad regime. But priorities have changed and Damascus is feeling less isolated today as a result.


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