Thursday, September 11, 2014

ISIS and Assad: Two Parts of the Same Problem

When , on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, President Obama addressed the nation about the threat of ISIS, it underscored the extent to which the world has changed and the parameters of foreign policy have shifted. Today the U.S. is faced with a complex and volatile globe. It is a world in which there are no easy choices or simple solutions.

The threat of ISIS is real and the President struck the right tone in signalling America's determination to confront it. It was also reassuring to hear the President declare that U.S. action against ISIS would not be undertaken in cooperation with or to the benefit of the Assad regime in Syria. But such circumspection concerning the Assad regime will not suffice in formulating a credible and effective strategy against ISIS. ISIS and the Assad regime are mutually reinforcing pathologies, and neither one of them can be redressed in isolation from the other.

This principle is a natural extension of the President's own logic. He insisted that the Iraqis had to form a new, more inclusive government as a precondition for US assistance against ISIS, on the assertion that the exclusive and discriminatory policies of the al-Maliki regime had fueled ISIS's rise. As I wrote previously, this argument was empirically weak, as the Iraqi military's lack of air power goes much farther toward explaining why it performed so badly against ISIS than the political profile of the al-Maliki government.

Where a political explanation is not persuasive in the case of Iraq, however, it is virtually the only way to understand ISIS's purchase in Syria. The Assad regime has all of the modern weaponry that the Iraqis lack, and at one time controlled Syrian society with an iron fist. The only reason ISIS has been able to invest so much Syrian territory despite the overwhelming tactical advantage of the Assad regime and its military is that, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the legitimacy of the Assad government has collapsed in the eyes of a critical majority of Syria's people, who will no longer tolerate living under its rule.

If there was ever any argument that political change was necessary in Iraq in order to contend with ISIS (and there admittedly was, albeit provisionally), that argument is exponentially more forceful in the case of Syria. President Obama promises to bring massive U.S. air power against ISIS, and this is no doubt the right course. But events in Syria up to now prove that air power will not be enough. The Syrian government, which is much closer to the scene of ISIS's activity and has greater intelligence and human assets to bring to bear, has been using air power against ISIS to no avail. As long as the Syrian people perceive ISIS to be an effective opponent to the Assad regime (that is, as long as the Assad regime exists), they will provide ISIS with enough support to survive in the face of superior firepower.

Final defeat of ISIS will thus require a strategy that combines tactical and political elements. If the U.S. is to truly commit to the final destruction of ISIS, it must simultaneously commit to an end to the Syrian civil war. If the threat posed by ISIS was so grave that we could refuse protection to Iraq, an ally we had occupied for 10 years, in order to assure the conditions for ISIS's defeat, it is a short leap to insist that the Syrian government, one which has been hostile to the U.S. for decades, must undertake changes in the interest of U.S. national security.

Whether the U.S. acknowledges it or not, by declaring war on ISIS it has become a combatant in the Syrian civil war. As such, it should explicitly lay out the terms of its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Effective immediately Syria should be declared a no-fly zone for the aircraft of the Assad regime. Assad forces should understand that if they launch ground operations against the Free Syrian Army or its allies they will be met with American air strikes. If Bashar al-Assad steps down and his regime submits to negotiations for the formation of a unity government with the Syrian National Council, a reconstituted Syrian military (and its air force) could join in partnership with the U.S. and its allies in the fight against ISIS. Unless and until that occurs the Syrian government should be treated as a hostile force.

These are audacious and risky policies, but they are the only course that has any hope of redressing the threat posed by ISIS. Any attempt to impose a purely tactical solution on the situation in Syria will result in an endless quagmire. Until the problem posed by the Assad regime is finally redressed, the chaos created by ISIS will continue to spin further out of control.

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