The jihadist movement is not only reshaping the situation in Syria — it might completely shift alliances across the region. Will Assad ally with Turkey, Iraq and even the West against ISIS?
ANKARA — So, it finally happened. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has turned its attention back on Syria's strongman Bashar al-Assad, capturing and killing hundreds of his soldiers recently in the northern city of Raqqa, Syria.
This shift in the jihadist movement's strategy will most certainly affect Assad's politics — and likely the power balance across the entire region.
Expert opinions regarding ISIS have repeatedly proved to be wrong. First, the group was said to be focused on fighting against Assad. Only much later, people realized that the movement was acting largely in step with the Syrian regime, with their goals on the field matching up perfectly.
The Turkish government was the first to voice that view, which was later embraced by both UN and U.S. officials.
People then started to think that ISIS would be gone before Assad. But the Syrian president never left, and the jihadist organization surpassed him by becoming the largest — and most vicious — threat in the region.
Most recently, some said Assad and ISIS would never dare to attack each other. The theory has, again, wound up in the trash heap of would-be conventional wisdoms.
Will Syria turn against ISIS?
This is what I wrote in a column published in January: "ISIS is targeting Iraq's Shia government today, but it wouldn't be an issue for them to target Damascus or Tehran tomorrow. Turkey might expect the jihadist movement to leave the field as Assad's power and influence weakens. But the Iraqi situation shows us that the exact opposite must also be considered."
What is happening today is precisely that scenario. ISIS started targeting the Syrian regime after it no longer needed Assad. So, what's next? Above all, support for Assad will increase in Syria. With a growing fear of ISIS, people may settle to live under his rule. The Syrian opposition might also compromise as jihadists gain more and more power.
Bashar al-Assad in April 2014 — Photo: Xinhua/Sana
What aboud Syria's strongman himself? To this day, he watched ISIS fighters slaughter his opponents. Syria's UN Ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, depicted the situation well in a discussion we had. "Who would say it isn't in his advantage if two opposition groups kill each other?" Ja'afari said. Yet one of them is now targeting his camp.
When Assad becomes the ally
This is what I wrote in another column: "Bashar al-Assad will join the anti-ISIS front once the jihadists target him. Turkey, the West and Assad may find themselves cooperating against ISIS."
The Syrian president needs to stand with his pro-Shia and Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki in the fight against ISIS. But that means also lining up with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as he helps Maliki.
The situation is becoming much more complex. The U.S. now cooperates with Iran vis a vis the Iraqi context, paving the way for Iran to keep moving closer to Western countries. The next Iraqi government will also deeply depend on the U.S.
We can expect the U.S. to strike ISIS fronts as soon as the next Iraqi government is formed. Unconfirmed reports say drone strikes have already started. "If ISIS directly targeted U.S. interests, we might have made a limited strike," a government official in Washington told me last week.
Turkey will have no choice but join this developing anti-ISIS front. The same goes for Iraqi Kurdistan, as an ally of Ankara and Washington — and soon of Baghdad.
Iran, Turkey and the U.S. may soon find themselves with Assad on their side.