ISTANBUL — The Syrian regime today presents itself to the international community as a partner in "fighting terrorism," and Bashar al-Assad is happy to leave his enemies on the northern front (where the Nusra, Islamic Front, Free Syrian Army, and YPG fight ISIS) to wear each other out.
The proposed anti-terror partnership would function just like the cooperation the Assad regime has practiced with surrendering chemical weapons in order to reduce international isolation and block plans for foreign military intervention.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) had not been perceived as a major threat in Syria, but by expanding to Iraq, and setting off alarms in the international community, both Assad and his other opponents inside Syria see a chance to turn this crisis into an opportunity.
The opposition groups hope the new situation will pave the way for more weapons to come their way. However, the outside supporters of these opposition groups, the United States foremost, wants them to direct all their energy to the battle against ISIS. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared last month that "the moderate opposition in Syria has the potential to be a very important player in pushing back against ISIS not just in Syria, but also in Iraq." President Barack Obama has asked for $500 million from Congress to support the "moderate" opposition. This is a striking shift, now focused on fighting ISIS instead of fighting Assad.
A secret plan
The second problem is the loss of credibility amongst the opposition, which continues to splinter into more and more factions. Ahmad Tome, prime minister of the temporary government founded by the opposition, disbanded the High Military Council of the Free Syrian Army and relieved Chief of the General Staff Abdul-Ilah Bashir from duty due to charges of corruption and bribery. This move caused a crisis within the Syrian National Council.
Meanwhile, ISIS is gaining the edge on these opposition groups in the field. Commanders in Aleppo, Raqqa and Deyr Zor have made threats of giving up their arms if they do not receive aid.
Several plans were developed before in order to strengthen the moderates; some were put into motion, some were shelved. The result is a fiasco. For example, according to a press reports last month, General David Richards, former chief of the general staff of the British Military, had prepared a secret plan in 2012 for a massive 100,000-strong opposition force to be armed and trained at camps in Turkey and Jordan.
When they were ready, this force would march to Damascus with air support from Gulf countries and the West. However, this one year action plan was found to be "too risky" by both the U.S. and UK political leadership. We do not know whether a similar plan may be made against ISIS but the situation is much more complex than it was two years ago.
There are not many organizations left on the field that have the ability to resist ISIS except the Islamic Front, which has Salafist elements in it, and the Nusra, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. The Nusra and the Islamic Front are partners and they do not recognize the Syrian National Council. Groups such as the Hazm Movement, which has been labeled as "moderate" by the U.S., and the Martyrs of Bedir lead by the Halid Hayani are the only ones left. The Martyrs of Bedir played a part in the clashes during January and February to drive ISIS out of Aleppo. They also control two prisons that house not only Assad supporters but some members of the opposition too. The Martyrs are known as exploiters, rapists, thieves and pillagers, but are also considered as a necessary evil due to their resistance against ISIS.
Another factor that worries the U.S. is where the weapons will end up. Misel Kilo, a member of the Syrian National Council, was quoted in al Kuds al Arabi newspaper: "Approximately $500 million worth of weapons were brought to Syria. However these weapons were lost due conflicts and chaos. The weapons were sold to neighboring countries. Especially the weapons that came from Turkey were returned to Turkey and sold there. Warlords have appeared. They stole the people's grain, oil and property; now they are busy with the weapons trade."
So what strategy could the U.S. use against ISIS in this situation? The options for the U.S. are few:
- A struggle of power with the dirty, disorderly and untrustworthy opposition
- A secret partnership with the salafist Islamic Front and the Nusra
- Forget about the opposition in Syria and the rebelling Sunni clans in Iraq, and form an alliance of convenience with the Assad administration in Syria and Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq
Obama could also just pray for his last two years in the Oval Office to pass quickly.