The report Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad is cooperating with Islamic State, which appeared on the Twitter feed of the American embassy in Damascus, should surprise nobody. This cooperation didn’t begin just now; the Syrian regime has long been buying cheap oil from the organization – pumped from Syrian oilfields that Islamic State now controls – and selling it to its citizens.
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But the current cooperation is primarily military, in the battle against other rebel militias, especially the coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah (“The Army of Conquest”), which includes the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
In northern Aleppo Province, for instance, Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is trying to gain control of major traffic arteries that link the other rebel groups in the area to Turkey – a vital logistical connection. This strategy is coordinated with the Assad regime, which is continuing its airstrikes on Aleppo. Assad’s goals are to prevent Jaish al-Fatah and the Free Syrian Army from conquering the city of Aleppo and to sever their territorial link to Latakia Province, an Assad stronghold.
Nor is Aleppo the only place such cooperation is happening. Regime forces abandoned the city of Palmyra and allowed ISIS to take it over unopposed, and it appears they may do the same in the southern province of Daraa, leaving ISIS to fight the other rebel groups on their behalf. Salim Idris, defense minister in the rebels’ provisional government, said approximately 180 Syrian Army officers are currently serving with ISIS and coordinating the group’s military operations with the army.
This coordination obligates the Western and Arab coalition against ISIS to revise its current strategy of treating this fight as separate from the one against the Assad regime. This strategy holds that while ISIS should be fought militarily, the Syrian civil war must be resolved diplomatically.
Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Turkey have always argued that these two fights should be treated as a unified campaign. Egypt, which had previously argued that any solution in Syria required dialogue with Assad, recanted this week after its foreign minister visited Saudi Arabia, where the “correct” policy was apparently dictated to it.
This newly united Arab stance might force Washington to abandon its hesitations about direct military action in Syria. At the least, it might provide aerial defense for rebel forces, even without declaring a no-fly zone.
Such a change is likely to be pushed by the rebels, some of whom are currently completing training courses in Turkey and Jordan. Many graduates of these courses have reportedly refused a U.S. request that they commit to fighting only against ISIS, and not against Assad. And they aren’t willing to fight at all without an aerial umbrella. Turkey has backed this stance, saying this week that there’s no point in training fighters and sending them back to the field without aerial support.
Washington’s foot-dragging apparently stems from its hope that Iran will help negotiate a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war once it signs a nuclear deal with the West, which is slated to happen by the end of this month. This would allow America to refrain from direct involvement in the fight against Assad. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennadiy Gatilov, hinted as much this week when he said he discerned willingness on Washington’s part to cooperate with Iran on a diplomatic process.
If Iran is really willing to abandon Assad, such a diplomatic process could be effective. True, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that his country will support Assad “to the end,” but he didn’t specify what the end was.
Meanwhile, Tehran continues to be an active player on the Syrian battlefield. Alongside the many military advisers it has sent, it operates a militia in Syria under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. This militia is composed of thousands of Afghan refugees living in Iran. They are paid $500 a month, and their families receive permanent residency in Iran as a reward for their service.
Iran may also send additional forces, given the recent assessment by Ansar-e Hezbollah, another Iranian organization subordinate to the Revolutionary Guard, that it will be necessary to send more than 50,000 additional troops to save the Assad regime. This assessment attests not only to the Syrian Army’s weakness, but also to the high price Iran would have to pay to save it.
But Iran seems unlikely to be willing to engage in direct battle in an arena where its victory isn’t guaranteed. It would be more likely to decide to hasten Assad’s end – especially now that Russia, too, is showing signs of impatience with him.