Getting It Right: Why the US Needs to Shift Its Syrian Priorities to Assad
Horrible. Tragic. Heartbreaking. There are many words that could describe the massive violence that has engulfed Syria since March 2011 and claimed approximately 200,000 lives. And yet, the source of the conflict, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, is still at large.
After years of dragging its feet, and a month and half after the US began airstrikes in Iraq, the United States and its allies finally involved itself in the Syrian Civil War by expanding its air campaign into Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in late September 2014. While a coalition of American, European, and Middle Eastern states have engaged ISIS-affiliated targets in Syria, the forces of the Bashar al-Assad regime have been completely ignored; since the beginning of the airstrikes, American officials have made clear that they would not use air strikes to fight the Assad regime despite the pleas from various opposition groups.
The US’s narrow focus on ISIS and unwillingness to address the huge problem posed by the Assad regime has led to two consequences. The first has been that US air strikes against terrorist targets have allowed the regime to focus its own firepower on the more moderate rebels that have been trying to overthrow Assad since 2011. One anonymous US official stated “It would be silly for them not to take advantage of the U.S. doing airstrikes … They’ve focused in the west and left off the east, where we are operating. Essentially, we’ve allowed them to perform an economy of force. They don’t have to be focused all over the country, just on those who threaten their population centers.”
In spite of coalition airplanes dominating Syrian air space, Assad regime warplanes and attack helicopters continue to regularly conduct their own air strikes, dropping missiles and barrel bombs (barrels filled with explosives and sometimes shrapnel or chemicals) on rebels and civilians alike. The northern city of Aleppo has seen army helicopters drop barrel bombs on an almost daily occurrence. On October 29th, the regime was accused of bombing a displaced person’s camp in the northern province of Idlib, killing dozens of people. US State Department spokesman Jen Psaki described the attack on the camp as “nothing short of barbaric.”
The regime has also continued to forcibly detain thousands upon thousands of people in its jails where people are subject to torture and interrogation. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 1,917 people have died of torture, starvation and lack of medical treatment in Syrian prisons in 2014 alone. Among the dead were 27 children and 11 women. And these are only the cases that made the light of day, its likely that there are many more.
The regime’s free reign has most recently manifested itself in its current besieging of Aleppo, one of the last main strongholds for rebels opposing Assad. In early October, regime forces launched a surprise attack against rebel positions just north of Aleppo, capturing the town of Handarat and cutting off the main rebel supply route that goes from the Aleppo countryside, through Handarat, into the city itself. As a result, anti-regime forces have been embroiled in a fight with Assad troops for the last rebel-held route into the city. If this route were to be completely captured, rebels as well as civilians would be trapped within Aleppo. This would most likely lead to a siege causing starvation and misery, similar to what occurred in the city of Homs for three years. A UN-proposed ceasefire in Aleppo is supposedly under consideration by the regime but no action has yet to be taken.
The second consequence of the US focus on ISIS has been a loss of support for the international coalition of states now engaged in Syria and Iraq amongst many Syrians who believe that Assad is a much greater threat than ISIS. According to one survivor of the Homs siege, “Everyone is against the international coalition now because the only one who benefits from this intervention is the regime. It relieved pressure on the regime in the north, allowing it to strike hard at other areas.”
As a result of the coalition’s inaction against Assad, one particularly common belief among Syrians on the ground is that the Assad regime and the international coalition of Western and Arab states are actually in cahoots with one another. This belief has been fed by the fact that Syrian airplanes are sometimes confused for coalition aircraft. As a result, Syrians have sometimes thought they were being bombed by the coalition when in reality they were being bombed by government warplanes. This has led to accusations that the coalition and the regime are covertly coordinating with the Assad government, an accusation that the US government has vehemently denied.
While ISIS is a concern for the rebels too, the belief among many Syrians is that the Assad regime is responsible for the rise in power of ISIS within Syria. There has been a long-standing accusation by Syrians and international organizations alike that Assad released leaders of the extremist movement (then affiliated with Al-Qaeda) from his prisons in the first place and that the regime has actively supported the group in a bid to counter the more moderate rebels.
As a result there was deep frustration in recent weeks when the coalition focused all the brunt of its firepower on the city of Kobani, a town which moderate Syrian rebels contend had very little strategic value compared to Aleppo, which at the time was also in the process of becoming besieged.
The US is embroiled in this conflict with little end game in sight. Yes the goal is to “degrade and destroy” ISIS but if the US does not decide to act against Assad soon, coalition support will continue to decrease as moderate rebels continue to face defeats at the hands of the unhindered Syrian regime.
However, there appears to be a potential change on the horizon. It was recently revealed that the US is considering a review of its current policy in Syria after realizing that ISIS may not be defeated without a political transition in Syria and the removal of President Assad, something that Syrians have been claiming for a very long time now.
Previously, the US had been prioritizing an “Iraq first” strategy believing that the focus on Iraq would allow the coalition to “degrade and destroy” ISIS in that country and then the coalition could shift its resources to Syria. Clearly that hasn’t worked given the interconnectedness of this cross-border conflict. Furthermore, the failures to address the origins of ISIS’s rise within Syria due to the rampant chaos and tacit support of the regime have only allowed this conflict to drag on. The regime allowed ISIS to operate relatively unhindered and ISIS took advantage by both expanding its operations and finding recruits among the victims of the violence.
While nothing has been confirmed, among the options being discussed for a new strategy is a no-fly zone, something that had been proposed by moderate Syrians (and Turkey) since the very early days of the conflict. Another option that is said to be on the table is the acceleration of the vetting, arming, and training of moderate soldiers, a program that has been advancing at an incredibly slow pace.
The vast majority of Syrians cannot envision a future where Assad remains President for long. His regime is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, much more than those killed by extremist groups like ISIS. Thus far the Obama administration has refused to face this fact. With a current review of the Syrian strategy underway, one can only hope that any changes made will not be too little too late.