The increased attention ISIS is receiving in the wake of Friday’s deadly terror attacks in Paris is “taking the pressure off the Syrian regime right at the moment when pressure might have been effective,” Josh Rogin wrote Sunday on Bloomberg View.
ISIS was able to establish itself in Syria due to Assad’s brutal campaigns against Sunni Muslims in the country, which drove many of them into the arms of the terror group, Rogin argued. Meanwhile, Russian and Iranian forces have launched frequent attacks on non-ISIS rebels, though they have mostly left ISIS alone. “Assad wants the Islamic State to remain an imminent threat, so the international community will see two options: keep Assad or let terrorists take over Syria,” Rogin explained.
Rogin quoted several experts who also reached this conclusion, including former White House advisor and veteran diplomat Dennis Ross. “Bashar Assad is not the answer to defeating ISIS; he helped produce them, buys their oil, is the cause that draws foreign fighters to them,” Ross tweeted on Sunday.
“Making sure Assad is not the answer is key to a viable settlement,” Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, similarly told Rogin. “At the end of this process, it has to be a viable agreement that puts a country back together or we are going to have terror attacks in the U.S.”
“There is a lot of temptation, in the wake of the horror in Paris, to treat only the symptoms of instability in Syria,” Rogin concluded. “But the Assad regime is the disease, and the symptoms will not go away until Assad is gone.”
On Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Assad has cut his own deal with Daesh. They sell oil. He buys oil. They are symbiotic, not real enemies in this. And he has not, when he had a chance over four years, mounted his attacks against Daesh.” Daesh is a pejorative Arabic term for ISIS.
Kerry has argued that Assad boosts ISIS for nearly a year and a half. In April of 2014, he said, “Well, President Assad is one of the principal reasons – the principal reason – that ISIS exists. President Assad is a magnet for jihadists and foreign fighters from around the world, and that’s why they’ve been conglomerating in Syria and spreading their tentacles out.” At the time, he indicated that the surest way to reduce terrorism would be for Assad to step down.
Three months later, Kerry added, “Remember something: Even in these last two to three years while Assad has been waging his duplicitous efforts against both the opposition but also not going after ISIL – while that’s been going on, it’s been the opposition that’s been fighting both, and they’ve survived.”
Last October, Kerry noted, “the bottom line is you will not have peace in Syria ultimately as long as Assad remains the focus of power and the center magnet, if you will, for extremism.” In December, he pointed out, “Now while Assad claims to be the last line of defense against a terrorist takeover in Syria, the truth is his relationship to Daesh has been symbiotic. It was Assad’s ruthless reign that fueled Daesh’s rise and enabled terrorists to portray themselves as the only alternative Syrians had to their dictator.”
Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh wrote in Foreign Affairs on Sunday that Iran similarly uses ISIS to bolster its own regional ambitions. Noting that Iran has not attempted to roll back ISIS’s territorial gains, Gerecht and Takeyh observed that sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq allowed the Islamic Republic to achieve “more influence than at any time since the 1979 revolution.” By being seen as an indispensable partner in the fight against terrorism, Iran’s “cynical strategy…will likely do just enough to make sure the Sunnis don’t conquer the Shia portions of Iraq and Assad’s enclave in Syria, but no more. Meanwhile, in ISIS’ wake, Tehran will strengthen its own radical Shia militias.”
This past June, the administration accused Syria of bombing anti-Assad rebels but leaving ISIS alone as it was advancing on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. That same month, Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote, “As long as Assad is dropping chlorine bombs, killing women and children, and destroying Sunni communities in Syria, ISIS cannot be defeated.”
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