The bloody Syrian stalemate unites Russia and the West, in a shared urgency to defeat ISIS. But the Syrian dictator, also an ISIS foe, should not be seen as a lesser evil.
MUNICH — Without Bashar al-Assad, there would be no war in Syria. His regime is the source of the rebellion of the once moderate opposition in this ever important Arab country. And yet somehow, it is exactly this tyranny, initiated by the father in 1971, pursued by his son since 2000, that is being used by the terrorists of the Islamic State (ISIS) as justification for the war they're waging against humans and the very idea of humanity.
And now, it is the same Assad, son, master of torture chambers and barrel bombs, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reportedly looking to meet. In order to talk — no, not about his immediate resignation, but about a "solution" to the conflict.
Syria has once again become the center of the world's attention. Merkel's considerations are directly linked to the wave of refugees from Syria arriving on German soil. As long as the Assad regime, the Islamists and the relatively moderate "Free Syrian Army" are fighting each other, the millions who have fled the country most certainly will not return. On top of that, hundreds of thousands more will leave Syria in the coming months.
Still, while Europe is busy worrying about refugees, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are focused on other things going on in Syria.
Putin still considers Assad the sole "legitimate" president of Syria, and wants to, as he claimed in a recent interview, "save" him. Moscow's support of the Assads dates back to Soviet times. Just as the U.S. is responsible for the development of ISIS in Iraq, Russian policy is responsible for the maintenance of the bloody dictatorship in Damascus — and the accompanying civil war in Syria.
Putin doesn't flinch in the face of the Syrian regime's crimes. For him, Assad is, and has always been, an ally, who guarantees Moscow a certain leverage in the region.
For the United States, the quicksand in Iraq since the invasion in 2003 plays a much more important role. In the beginning, Obama adopted a hands-off approach in Syria, before drawing a line because of chemical weapons —but that didn't last either. Today it's the fear of ISIS that brings the Americans closer to their frenemy Russia.
Beyond the historic alliance with Damascus, Putin also genuinely fears an ISIS expansion toward the southern borders of the Russian Federation. In the West, Assad is now considered the lesser evil, who can later easily be forced into exile. This probably helps explain Merkel's vague statements about Assad.
Nevertheless, several points must be considered before this marriage of convenience. First of all, ISIS is not interested in negotiations, neither with Assad nor with anyone else. For the Islamic State there are only two possible solutions: victory, or death. In order to defeat the Islamists militarily, Assad's troops would have to be armed in a way that guarantees the dictator a certain stability for the future. This is, nota bene, part of Putin's plan. There will be no joint military intervention of Russians, Americans and Europeans, which would entail an occupied Syrian state that nobody wants — indeed, that would probably suffer the same fate as Iraq after 2003.