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Why we can’t tackle IS without tackling Assad

We need a Syrian rebel force to defeat the terror group—but they're too occupied with their primary enemy

By Iyad el-Baghdadi  

Will British bombs do anything? © Carsten Rehder/dpa

On Thursday, four RAF Tornadoes took off from Cyprus to target oil facilities in IS-held eastern Syria. This came mere hours after UK lawmakers voted in favor of bombing IS targets, after a 10-hour debate. With this, the number of countries bombing IS targets rises to 15—not counting those offering support, training and logistics.

The British decision to intervene may be politically significant, but militarily it’s expected to have no more than a marginal effect. After all, the international intervention is 18 months old now, and there’s little signs of an imminent breakthrough. There are few assets that can be bombed within IS territories that haven’t been bombed. IS had anticipated such a bombing campaign, and either destroyed or hidden its heavier armor, knowing that it can’t use it.

It is important to note that IS has evolved far beyond a “classical” terror organization with a few scattered camps—we must think of its military capacity not as that of a terror organization but as that of a proto-state. In short, IS cannot be “bombed away,” it must be replaced on the ground. A campaign of aerial bombardment alone—no matter how intense—will not deprive IS of territory. A bombing campaign will only work if done strategically to assist boots on the ground.

History, common sense, and political realities tell us that this ground force cannot be a foreign army. It has to be a disciplined, legitimate, and effective force—but most importantly, it has to be a native force that is seen by the local population not as occupiers, but as liberators.

Read more on Syria:

Will bombing ever get rid of Islamic State?

Syria: Cameron’s Iraq?

Five things we learned from the air strikes debate

Assad’s army is none of these. Consider, to start with, the issue of legitimacy: Russian president Medvedev has recently called Assad’s regime “legitimately elected,” but as this poignant chart shows, Syrian elections under the Assad regime were mostly a charade that ends with predictable results. The fact is that Assad hasn’t only lost most of Syria’s territory, he has also lost the consent of most of Syria’s population, not least because of his string of unpunished war crimes, that included a deliberate chemical weapons massacre of civilians.

Just as importantly, though, Assad’s army is increasingly non-native, made increasingly of non-Syrian, non-Sunni militias. As a recent defector recently said, “One important thing to realise is that there is no Syrian Army anymore, it is just militias, mostly Iranians and Lebanese.” Astoundingly, despite all of the support Assad’s “army” is getting from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and the myriad of Iran-organized Shiite militias, it’s barely able to score advances, and is actually losing ground on some fronts.

The Kurds—while reliable—are only native to the Kurdish majority areas of Iraq and Syria (where, predictably, they have been very effective in rolling back IS.) While IS tries very hard to present itself as a global Islamic Caliphate that is open to all Muslims from all ethnicities, its “consent to rule” was primarily extracted from Sunni Arabs—sometimes voluntarily, sometimes reluctantly, and sometimes through threats and intimidation. Sunni Arab areas continue to be its “heartlands.” Kurdish attempts to push into these “heartlands” may open a Pandora’s box of ethnic tensions, especially given the current atmosphere of instability and mistrust.

There’s no tiptoeing around it—the army that can most effectively “liberate” IS-held areas can only be a Syrian rebel force. Ideally, one that believes in the idea of a united Syria, and believes in a democratic post-war Syria. Indeed, the Syrian rebels have been at war with IS even before their declaration of statehood, and have in the past dealt them some painful defeats. But the Syrian rebels are too busy fighting Assad—their primary battlefield enemy—to be effective against IS.

Why do the Syrian rebels prioritise fighting Assad over IS? While IS’s bloody cinematics make them seem bigger than they are, it’s an often overlooked fact that despite their brutality, they are not the most prolific murderer in the Syrian conflict. Many people are shocked to know that it is Assad, in fact, who is responsible for 95.96 per cent of civilian deaths, 92.91 per cent of child deaths, and 99.5 per cent of deaths under torture. More relevant for Europe is the fact that 70 per cent of all refugees say they are fleeing Assad, not IS.

Getting native Syrian boots to support the fight against IS is an absolute must—and to be legitimate, these Syrian boots should represent the Syrian majority. This majority cannot be built on the premise of fighting IS alone—to build this majority, the world cannot ask Syrians to forget about or cooperate with their worst persecutor. The fight against IS is linked to justice in Syria, and justice in Syria cannot be attained without getting serious about the role of Assad in this catastrophe.


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