The battle against ISIL cannot blind us to Assad’s sins

The emergence of a strong ISIL component in Syria is not in spite of Bashar Al Assad’s efforts – but because of them, writes HA Hellyer.

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad delivering a speech in Damascus  EPA / SANA

Earlier this week, with the assistance of several Arab states, the US began a campaign to strike at ISIL forces in Syria. It arrives at a time when many in the West are arguing that the threat of ISIL dictates a new approach to Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria. They are both right and wrong.

The ISIL threat is a real one. The radical Islamist group is of great concern internationally.

But there are also legitimate concerns around this particular campaign. For several years now, Mr Al Assad’s regime has been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians – yet the war he has waged has never resulted in action remotely similar to what we are now seeing over ISIL. Indeed, even supporting the Syrian rebel forces against Mr Al Assad has been a half-hearted effort at best.

Beyond these concerns there are some who argue that Mr Al Assad remains the best hope for tackling ISIL.

It is a dubious argument. There is an ethical argument that says by aligning with the Al Assad regime the West would be devoid of integrity in its foreign policy. The effect of that within the West should not be underestimated – if it has failed to live up to high standards many times before, it has also not ever stood on the same side as the likes of Mr Al Assad.

Putting the moral argument aside, however, the idea of aligning with Mr Al Assad is one that makes little strategic sense. On the contrary, such a decision would be likely to make our countries less, not more, safe.

The coalition has attacked ISIL positions in different parts of Syria. In all likelihood, these will not be the last attacks – there will be more, and the region will have to prepare itself for a long campaign. The potential for blowback is real.

Nevertheless, popular support for ISIL within the region is minimal. The US and the Arab states involved in this operation needn’t be concerned about discontent arising from these strikes. Indeed, in some quarters, they may actually increase their popular standing for acting so forcefully against ISIL.

This would not be the case if these states aligned themselves with Bashar Al Assad’s regime. Siding with the so-called butcher of Damascus would mean not only making enemies of ISIL – but enemies of probably the vast majority of the Sunni Muslim world. It would be a long time before Sunni Muslim populations would forget such a deal.

Recently, at a private gathering of counter-terrorism experts, one analyst, opposed to any military engagement on the side of the West in Syria made the following observation: “From a purely security perspective, it would be far more preferable for us to try to overthrow Al Assad, than for us to ally in the slightest with Al Assad against ISIL. All we would do in the latter scenario is make enemies of pretty much every Sunni Muslim population.” He was right.

There is a new approach that the West needs to take when it comes to Al Assad’s regime – but it is not to align with him. Rather, it is take seriously the notion that his continued rule in Syria is inherently destabilising.

His regime produced the conditions that led to ISIL’s growth. It was Mr Al Assad who released so many of the radical extremists at the onset of the revolutionary uprising from prison.

It was Mr Al Assad’s regime that targeted so many of the protest movements, which at that point were unarmed – and which led to an armed struggle taking place, where extremists could find a role. The emergence of a strong ISIL component in Syria is not in spite of Mr Al Assad’s efforts – but because of them.

It is rare for ethical, long term aims and short-term realpolitik strategic considerations to match up. In this case, the ethical abhorrence of aligning with Mr Al Assad in any shape or form, and our own strategic security concerns, do indeed intersect.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services ­Institute in London and the ­Brookings Institution in ­Washington DC