June 25, 2014 by Darius
Yesterday, the Syrian air force launched raids against ISIS positions – in Iraq. Are we (finally) seeing a shift in the Syrian government’s conduct against the rebels?
From the beginning, part of the grand strategy of the Syrian regime was to radicalize the opposition, discrediting it in the eyes of the outside world and causing fearful minorities in Syria to rally behind the government. The Syrian military has specifically avoided targeting the hardcore Islamist groups like ISIS. The strategy has worked like a charm: ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, both al-Qaeda affiliates, became the dominant rebel groups, while secular ones like the Free Syrian Army were marginalized. Despite suffering heavy casualties, Assad’s crucial Alawite base has remained loyal to his government, and Europe and the US have been hesitant to back the opposition, fearing who the opposition might prove to be.
Except Assad’s strategy has come with a price: largely due to the fact that the Syrian government has left them alone, ISIS and its allies control a large chunk of northeastern Syria. Now the groups are expanding into Iraq and threatening a fellow Shia-led government there. Assad’s strategy was nothing more than a first phase: radicalize the opposition, make it less of a threat to the regime, then crush it for good.
The Syrian government has accomplished the first phase with aplomb: the regime cannot be seriously said to be in imminent danger of falling. But the Syrian government never wanted a functionally independent entity in Syria (or Iraq) ruled by ISIS. So perhaps now is the moment to move to phase two: take the fight back to ISIS on both sides of the border. One of the ironies is that Bashar al-Assad can actually appear helpful to the international community at the same time.