Analysis |

World Powers See Assad as Bulwark Against Islamic State

Diplomatic map starting to break Syrian president’s way.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

After three years of war and the deaths of more than 170,000 people, Syrian President Bashar Assad is starting to sense a change not just on the Syrian front but in the international arena as well. Last week U.S. President Barack Obama referred to the liquidation of chemical weapons stockpiles as an important achievement, adding that “we are pressuring Assad to desist from committing atrocities against Syria’s population.” This formulation is interesting, in that it doesn’t include a demand for regime change.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement was more pointed, indicating that Washington “would continue to provide political and financial support to aid the moderate opposition, helping those Syrians who opt for peace and oppose extremists.” The United States committed to supplying high-quality weapons to the Free Syrian Army, but these promises remained on paper, since there is no definition yet for what constitutes a “moderate” opposition.

The strategic change is reflected in the United States and Europe now being more worried about the expansion of the Islamic State than the continued rule of Assad. Assad is increasingly perceived as a vital component in the struggle against the Islamic State. This conceptual change was discussed in recent talks between Saudi Arabia, Russia, Egypt, the United States and Israel. The Saudi and Russian foreign ministers exchanged visits recently, and Saudi Arabia may now be ready to consider a reform in Syria which will allow Assad to remain in power.

This amounts to a sea change in Saudi strategy, and some analysts suggest that such an agreement will include the installation of its protégé Saad al-Hariri as Lebanon’s president. This would allow Saudi Arabia an elegant exit from the Syrian quagmire.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi also discussed Syria in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sissi never demanded the removal of Assad who, in turn, has never criticized Egypt’s treatment of Hamas during the fighting in Gaza. Iran was among the first to support Egypt’s proposal for a cease-fire. Sissi may therefore join the Saudis in agreeing to Assad’s remaining in power.

This is bad news for the Syrian opposition, whose American support is also shaky. This new axis is also aimed at neutralizing Qatar in the Syrian arena, where it enjoys great influence over Islamist militias.

This may be what lies behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent description of a “new political horizon.” He apparently was not referring to the Palestinian issue but to the new informal alliance of Arab states which are concerned about the Islamic State, viewing Assad as a potential ally in a campaign against it. He could be figuring that harsh expressions against Hamas by Arab leaders, Israel’s diplomatic and military cooperation with Egypt, the new strategic outline presented by Saudi Arabia, threats to Jordan and Israeli concerns about militias overrunning Syria may form a basis for regional cooperation.

Checkpoint economy

“Hand over everything in your pockets!” ordered the armed guard manning the checkpoint outside the Syrian city of Idlib. The young student trying to get through gave the equivalent of eight dollars to the guard, who belonged to the jihadist group Nusra Front. The student didn’t complain, telling the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar that his uncle had paid eighty dollars a few days earlier.

Such payments have become routine for Syrians. Everyone collects money at checkpoints, including the Syrian army, the Free Syrian Army militias, Nusra Front and the Islamic State.

The most pleasant are the Syrian army, say some residents. “They usually only inspect your papers and inquire why you’re not mobilized, looking at documents exempting you from military service, if you have them,” said one citizen, adding that soldiers usually take the least money. The problem is that anyone traveling from Damascus to Idlib needs to pass through several checkpoints belonging to different groups, requiring sufficient cash in order to reach one’s destination safely.

Citizens of Syria now require several maps. One is for finding out who rules what areas, while a more detailed map shows which militia controls which quarter or village. A third map describes bypass roads and routes for crossing into Turkey or Lebanon. These maps change daily. Thus, for example, militias from the Free Syrian Army just reached a truce with Kurdish militias in the northern city of Al-Hasakah, following many days of exchanging fire. One can now safely travel to this city. In the Qalamoun Mountains on the Lebanese border, the Syrian army and Hezbollah control a daily shifting pattern of territory. The city of Tartus on the Mediterranean coast is still considered safe, with electricity supplies lasting several hours, in contrast to Damascus, where supplies are intermittent and last only a few hours a day. Many citizens go to hotels to use the Internet.

Several towns have reached a pact with the Syrian army to avoid being attacked, demanding that militias depart. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t – some militias kill their own members if they are part of these pacts. Some militias conduct “foreign relations” with other countries, not only to raise funds. Thus, Nusra Front and its rival the Islamic State are negotiating for the release of Lebanese soldiers captured in a fierce battle in the Lebanese town of Arsal last week. Nusra Front is demanding two of its own captives in exchange for each soldier it releases, while the Islamic State demands a 10-to-1 ratio. Qatar and Turkey are urging the Front to reach a deal; they have no contact with the Islamic State. These countries assisted the Front before it joined Al-Qaida, and they may aid thousands of refugees who cannot reach Lebanon. Lebanese newspapers have reported that Turkey will agree to take in 25,000 more refugees, its earlier refusal notwithstanding. Such local agreements have evolved into an alternative form of government, as the Syrian army slowly progresses from village to village, trying to create contiguously controlled areas.

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