The West’s new strategy towards Syria’s Assad

The West’s increasing involvement in Iraq to combat the Islamic State (IS) insurgency has placed significant dilemma on its stance towards  Bashar al-Assad. The virtual none existence of the border between Iraq and Syria, and the apparent lack of Iraqi government authority in the Sunni dominated lands, has allowed the formation of the Islamic State and the establishment the self-proclaimed  ‘caliphate’. Yet, with the focus of attention on the situation in Iraq, there has been a lack of media interest in the Syria dimension of the conflict and even less interest on the implications of IS on the US/UK stance towards the Assad regime.

The current situation in Syria is a virtual stalemate between that of the regime and moderate rebels, with Eastern Syria under the undisputed control of IS. Whereas initially many commentators and strategists claimed that the regime would collapse, it has managed to remain in control of the territory and has notable support among the Syrian people. Recently, the regime forces have been able to go on the offensive to attempt to clear the suburbs of Damascus and the wider countryside. With material and financial support from the Kremlin and Tehran, coupled with a lack of a truly coordinated enemy force, the Assad regime looks likely to endure.

Perversely to the West, the Assad regime may be appealing as a partner in fostering regional stability. Although unpalatable, the Assad regime is much less lethal to regional stability as it does not wish to annex swathes of Northern Iraq or hold expansionist jihadist political philosophy.  It is the lack of Syrian government forces that are able to contend with the Islamists that has led to the creation of the IS. Although an alliance with the Assad regime has been completely rejected, (the UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond recently stated that joining forces with Assad would be neither ‘practical, sensible nor helpful’), the strategic reality is that the US/UK will at the very least have to tolerate Assad’s government existence. Yet, as an overt military collaboration with the Syrian governmentvlooks unlikely, their goals with regards to IS have become acutely aligned. In order for IS to be destroyed, a viable Syrian political actor has to fill the governance void with the clearance of IS, and currently such an actor is Assad and his government.

The US/UK strategic option may only extend to the direct support of the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army. Even if successful, this would only amount to containing the IS threat by clearing militants on the Syrian border. Such a strategy of containment will merely lead to a long tiring conflict similar to Afghanistan. This is assuming that the Iraqi state, Kurds and the US/UK can defeat IS militants on the ground.

Therefore, international politics has demonstrated its fascinating nature, as the US/UK has found itself aligned to the interests of the very regime that it was considering bombing the previous year. It is in the interests of the West not to force the collapse of the Assad regime, as this could only serve to strengthen the IS insurgency as the victorious moderate rebels would surely be exhausted and thus unable to act as a counter-force to the IS Islamists. Realist strategy has  forced Western strategists into considering the maxim ‘an enemy of my enemy is my friend’. It is the need to combat IS and reassert government control over the North and the West of Iraq that has taken priority, rather than the removal of the Assad government from subjugating Syria. For Western strategic interests it is Iraq that takes precedence and it is a likely eventuality that the current Syrian government will have to be tolerated to successfully destroy the Islamic State.

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Categories: Middle East

Author:Thomas Hall

Recently graduated with a MA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Aberdeen. An interest in Conflict, specifically with regards to irregular warfare and the Middle East.

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