The Rise of ISIS May Just Be Assad's Saving Grace

Can Arab and Western states overcome the centrifugal political forces and devise a common approach to ending the conflict in Syria?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Members of Nusra Front drive in a convoy as they tour villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, December 2, 2014.
Members of Nusra Front drive in a convoy as they tour villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, December 2, 2014.
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“If Assad falls, Hezbollah will also fall,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was quoted as saying in the Lebanese daily As-Safir. “But there is no possibility that Assad will fall,” he added.

It is unclear what Nasrallah bases this optimistic prediction on, when Hezbollah itself declared a state of emergency last week, increased its fundraising efforts and called for more fighters to join its ranks ahead of what it called “the decisive battle for the Qalamoun Mountains.” This is a battle that has waited for the arrival of spring and for the snow to melt in these high mountains, which control passes and supply routes between Lebanon and Syria, and large parts of which are under the control of the Nusra Front and other Islamist militias.

Hezbollah’s objective is not only to stop the forces of the Nusra Front and Islamic State (ISIS) from leaching into Lebanon, but to protect essential supply routes between Damascus and Homs and to the port city of Latakia, where Assad’s regime is still in control.

In contrast to other battles, in which the regime invested all its strength in retaking cities and districts that had been taken by the rebels, Syrian President Bashar Assad now finds himself in a major struggle for supply routes and critical crossroads, without which his forces might be surrounded by the rebels and thus lose the cities he now controls.

This is the challenge presented by the militias, which we may divide roughly into four categories: the Free Syrian Army, the Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, ISIS and the Islamist militias, some of which are working with the Free Syrian Army and some with the Nusra Front.

These militias, which control most of the crossings between Syria and Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, have isolated Syria physically and economically. The passage of goods between Syria and Lebanon has declined dramatically. The amount of oil Syria produces has plunged to 9,000 barrels a day (from about 300,000 barrels a day before the war), the export of goods from Syria to Iraq requires payment of a tax to ISIS, and merchandise coming from Turkey into Syria requires payment of a tax to the militias controlling those crossings.

The militias’ strategy of controlling border crossings is intended to complete control of main arteries within the country, so as to cut off the supplies on which Assad’s forces depend. If up to about a month ago it seemed that the militias had been unable to apply this strategy, after they took the cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour – which straddles the main artery between Aleppo and Latakia – the militias turned a strategic corner in the battlefield.

This turning point not only dramatically impacted morale among the fighters in these militias, but could also lead to a change in the policies of the Gulf States and the United States toward the rebels. The Gulf States’ policy regarding the crisis in Syria has suffered from a lack of coordination and mainly from contradictions that led to diplomatic conflicts like the one that developed between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia supported the Islamist militias that are not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Free Syrian Army, Qatar gave military and economic patronage to the Muslim Brotherhood militias, as did Turkey.

Until about two years ago, the working assumption guiding these countries was that these militias, if they were properly armed and trained, could win the war against the regime in Syria. But political and tactical rivalries among the militias, the entry of ISIS as a significant factor in the war and the weakness of the political opposition in creating a united front against Assad, split the militias into “private” areas of occupation and control.

For example, the Nusra Front has taken over the crossing at Kuneitra, the Free Syrian Army has occupied areas of Aleppo, ISIS has conquered the city of Raqqa in the north and the Kurdish militias have become an autonomous force that defends only the Kurdish region in Syria.

Now, in light of the militias’ recent victories and the military weakness of the regime, which has exhausted its ability to draft new soldiers from among its civilians, the way may have opened to unifying the rebel forces. Qatar, for example is has been trying for the past three weeks to persuade the Nusra Front leadership to separate from Al-Qaida and join up with the Free Syrian Army, or at least with the religious militias like Jaysh al-Islam or the Islamic Front (both considered relatively moderate) and thus enjoy legitimization by the U.S.

If the Nusra Front breaks from Al-Qaida, the U.S. can remove it from the list of terror organizations and then arm its fighters, and even include them among groups receiving training in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Nusra Front, which as late as November was holding talks with ISIS on joining forces, does not rule out the idea of disconnecting from Al-Qaida – because unlike the Nusra Front, which relies on Syrian fighters, Al-Qaida, like ISIS, relies on foreign volunteers. Moreover, the Nusra Front has in a number of cases coordinated its actions with other militias and has even fought against ISIS.

But the internal front in Syria is not isolated from the surrounding diplomacy of the Arab and Western countries, which so far have not managed to hammer out common goals for this war, not to mention a desired outcome. Thus, while the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, repeatedly states that Assad is part of the solution and his regime and must be taken into account in diplomatic dialogue, Saudi Arabian King Salman said on Tuesday that “Assad has no place or role in a future solution.”

In contrast, the U.S. while adhering to its constant policy that Assad has lost his legitimacy, will not oppose any worthy proposal, even if it comes from Russia or Iran. At this point Washington is focused on the war against ISIS and some in the American administration believe that Assad can be vital to this effort.

Meanwhile, the Americans have reduced their aid to the rebel militias. The U.S. is still funding a large part of the training of their forces, but opposes the establishment of no-fly zones in Syria.

In this matter, Washington has run into a Turkish policy that sees the removal of Assad as the preferred outcome and presents this as a condition to its willingness to play an active role in the war against ISIS. Turkey is also demanding that no-fly zones be established in Syria to stop assaults by the Syrian Air Force against population concentrations and rebel bases.

In light of these centrifugal forces, which have so far stymied all chances of a joint Arab and Western policy, Saudi Arabia might be the deus ex machina here. The meeting Tuesday between the heads of the Gulf States, at which French president Francois Hollande was also a guest, focused partly on the war against ISIS and the situation in Yemen, but the future of Syria was also discussed.

Saudi Arabia, whose previous king, Abdullah, created the reconciliation with Qatar, could also “straighten out” al-Sisi’s position and encourage not only in words the establishment of a united military front in Syria whose goal is to remove Assad.

The concluding statement from this meeting was particularly interesting, because it declares the “establishment of normal relations with Iran based on the principle of non-intervention [of one country in the matters of another].” Despite its laconic character, this statement, which comes some 10 days before a meeting of Gulf States leaders with U.S. President Barack Obama at Camp David, more than hints that the Gulf States have come to terms with the expected nuclear agreement with Iran.

Moreover, it is possible that the intent of the statement is also to convey a message to Iran on the subject of Syria that the policy of the Gulf States, particularly of Saudi Arabia, could assess their policy toward Iran in exchange for a solution to the crisis in Syria.

What is the desired outcome from their perspective? The statement says: “A meeting of the opposition will be held in Saudi Arabia to discuss the character of the phase after Assad’s regime, and in which a political solution will be emphasized, of a type that will answer the will of the Syrian people.”

When will that meeting – which was to have already taken place in Riyadh but was postponed because of disagreement in the opposition – take place? How will the “phase after Assad” happen? Will he be brought down by force or by an political agreement in which Iran will play a decisive role? The statement does not answer these questions.

It is possible that all sides are waiting for the signing of the nuclear agreement at the end of June, after which Iran will also be accorded legitimate diplomatic standing. Until then, they will continue to count the dead, wounded, refugees and uprooted people in Syria, who are relying on the empty coffers of the United Nations refugee agency UNWRA, or on charitable organizations.

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