In a wild tactical shift, Bashar al-Assad’s air force is reportedly conducting raids in support of ISIS. As the Islamic State’s forces advance on the anti-Assad rebel-held city of Aleppo, the New York Times reported this week that Assad’s air forces began to clear the way for their eventual assault on the city. Max Boot theorized that the maneuver is designed to ensure that Assad’s regime remains the only alternative to Islamist dominance of Syria that is palatable to the West. Institute for the Study of War analyst Christopher Kozak agreed. “The regime still feels that … at the end of the day, if it really comes down to [the Nusra Front], ISIS, and Assad in a room, you have to side with Assad,” he told Business Insider. But will the Assad regime survive long enough to present the West with that suboptimal choice? Is the Assad regime near collapse? It could be, according to a new report.
According to reporting from Washington Post opinion writer David Ignatius, it is increasingly likely that a post-Assad Syria will soon be a reality. What that reality will look like, however, remains uncertain. It is even less clear that this new normal will be one with which the United States is comfortable.
“Assad faces hard choices as battlefield losses mount,” an unnamed U.S. intelligence official recently said, according to Ignatius. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria.”
U.S. officials see mounting pressure on Assad from four directions. A potent new rebel coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest, backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, seized the capital of Idlib province late last month. Fighting ferociously alongside this coalition is Jabhat al-Nusra, or the al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Moderate rebels known as the “Southern Front,” backed by the United States and Jordan, are finally gaining some ground in southern Syria. And the Islamic State, the most fearsome group of all, is rampaging across northern, central and eastern Syria.
If Assad’s goal is to create the impression that the world would be better off with him at the helm, however unsavory that proposition may be, the Syrian dictator’s would-be successors go a long way toward supporting that contention.
It didn’t have to be this way.
When President Barack Obama reluctantly attempted to shore up domestic support for the mission to follow up on his self-imposed “red line” for action in Syria, he was doing so in defense of the long-standing international norm prohibiting the battlefield use of chemical weapons — much less, the use of those weapons on civilian populations. By taking the easy way out provided to him by a duplicitous Moscow, Obama sanctioned the use of those weapons, and they remain a staple element of Syria’s counter-insurgency strategy.
But the cobbling together of two distinct international coalitions that are presently intervening over the skies of Syria and Iraq (as though they are different conflicts) indicates that a confederacy of some sort could have been cobbled together. Had America and its willing partners intervened in Syria in 2013 in order to punish the Assad government, it is likely that those nations would have eventually formulated a strategy to contain the remnants of the Assad regime and, by necessity, the Syrian Civil War in Syria.
Even if there were no ground component to that campaign, the weakening of the Syrian regime would have presented anti-Assad rebels a more urgent and tempting target in Damascus than that which lay helpless on the eastern side of the Syrian border with Iraq. For those who contend that the collapse of the Assad regime at Western hands would have resulted in Syria becoming an Islamist-dominated basket case, it appears as though that reality was merely forestalled by two years and Iraq has been lost in the interim.
“The United States refuses to work with Jabhat al-Nusra, regarding it as a band of unrepentant al-Qaeda followers, even though the group is said to receive indirect support from Turkey and Qatar,” Ignatius reported. “U.S. officials weren’t persuaded by an interview broadcast last week by Al Jazeera with al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, in which he offered conciliatory statements toward Syrian minority groups and said his fight isn’t with the United States.”
The catastrophic results of the West’s careless dithering should be evident to any neutral observer today. A suboptimal situation has, in the space of just two years, become a disastrous situation. This should be a lesson to all who gallingly present advocate for a policy of cowardice masquerading as prudence.