Picking sides in Syria – Assad or al-Qaeda?
Syrians’ sacrifices have made it clear that neither Assad nor ISIS have any role in the future Syria, writes Ibrahim Fayad. © AFP / YME
Picking sides in Syria – Assad or al-Qaeda?
Last updated: January 22, 2014
Picking sides in Syria – Assad or al-Qaeda?

“Syria is best defined as the space between Assad and ISIS”

Banner Icon Syrians’ sacrifices have made it clear that neither Assad nor ISIS have any role in the future Syria, writes Ibrahim Fayad.

During the last months the international community has been haunted by the rise of radical Islamists in Syria. The rise of the Islamic factions is not new though; there has been steady increase of those groups since the peaceful movement was forced by the Assad regime brutality to turn to arms as an alternative to non-violence. Today, the armed opposition is mainly composed of the Islamist groups.

The strong Islamists’ presence and the increasing numbers of foreign fighters have drawn the attention of the Western governments in recent months. The “Islamists question” is the latest phase of the Syrian conflict. It came to the forefront of the media coverage particularly after the topic of the chemical attacks cooled down and the expected American strike against the Assad regime was replaced by the US-Russian deal to destroy Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. 

The international interest in the Islamists was not awakened by the mere presence of the Islamists as such, as they were important players in the Syrian conflict from its beginning. The attention of the international community and media was caught when the “Islamic State in Iraq and Sham” (ISIS) started consolidating its presence throughout Northern Syria. The ISIS deployment of its fighters in the towns and villages of Idlib and Aleppo took its fighters from their relatively isolated centers in the East to the streets of Aleppo and its countryside and exposed the magnitude of the foreign fighters’ phenomena which in turn sent alarming signals to the intelligence agencies and caught the media attention.

The rise of Islamists in Syria is changing the way Western governments look at the conflict. In the West, Syria is increasingly becoming a “security issue” rather than a “humanitarian tragedy”. This is not a simple change in terminology; neither is it a change in depicting what’s happening in Syria. It’s actually a change in policy priorities that would necessarily trigger policy changes towards the Syrian conflict.

"the Al-Qaeda threat is generally exaggerated"

Policy change proposals revolve around one suggestion; that is replacing the idea of removing Assad with the idea of allying with Assad against the extreme Islamists. Assad himself has for a long time been capitalizing on the Western fears of Islamic extremists and promoting himself as the only guarantor against extremism in Syria. Moreover, Russia adopts this view and has been urging the international community to do the same. Russian efforts are finally bearing fruits as voices in the West are emerging and calling for allying with the lesser evil, Assad.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Emile Hokayem argued why the West should not “get in bed with Assad” and described calls for rapprochement with Assad as resulting from “simplistic analysis”. Hokayem contends that “Assad expects that the fear of future jihadi terrorism will make the world forget his massacres” and he judge such thinking as “morally bankrupt and politically unsound.”

Repairing the relationship with the Assad regime is morally bankrupt because of the simple fact that this regime has imprisoned, tortured and killed hundreds of thousands. It’s the regime that uses siege and hunger as weapons and targets civilians with barrel-bombs. Last month the UN Human Rights Council said that it had gathered “massive evidence” that implicates Assad. Making deals with war criminals is always bad.

Politically, re-connecting to Assad would surely backfire and only complicate the situation. Firstly, Assad is the worst remedy for the extremists in Syria. He is actually the reason behind their emergence and expansion. Secondly, western support for Assad is exactly what the extremist groups have been praying for. It would weaken the position of the moderate forces in Syria and prove the already in-place assumption that the West supports Assad, thus drawing more public support to the radical discourses. Moreover, and most importantly it would send waves of enthusiastic and sympathetic youth from all over the world to join forces with the slain Syrians.

The British foreign secretary William Hague doesn't hesitate to repeatedly describe the international community repose to the Syrian conflict as an “abject failure”, and while many think it can’t get any worse if the thinking about Assad as an eligible partner continues it actually will. Such thinking would not be only a blow to international law but also to common sense.

On the other hand, as I explained in my last piece while calling for “radically rethinking the radical Syrian Rebels”, the Al-Qaeda threat is generally exaggerated. The extraordinary number of fighters affiliated with Al-Qaeda was not unexpected, it’s just a part of the growth of the organization (or the ideology more precisely) throughout the last decade. The last two weeks have shown us a bit why the extremist threat is generally exaggerated. The most extreme group, “the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham” (ISIS), was pushed out of most of Idlib and Aleppo provinces in the north by basically all the other fighting forces including the so-called Islamists.

We can learn a few things from the battles against ISIS. First, Assad is not the guarantor against extremism, it’s the Syrian moderates that can be counted on in this. ISIS, the main source of headache for the international community and the Syrians alike is weaker than it was portrayed during the elapsing months; it was pushed out of almost all of Idlib in a matter of days.

Finally, observing the events in Syria unfolding during the last three years and the events of the last two weeks, Syrians’ sacrifices have made it clear that neither Assad nor ISIS have any role in the future Syria. Therefore, the question of Assad or al-Qaeda seems irrelevant and irritating to most Syrians who would probably answer it, as they have been demonstrating for the last three years, with “NO”.

Syria, thus, is best defined as the space between Assad and ISIS, with both excluded.

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