Assad is the problem, not the solution – by Koert Debeuf
Tomorrow, on January 22, 2014, the Geneva II conference will start. After some deplorable miscommunication on the invitation of Iran, all main actors decided to participate. The aim of the conference is to find a way to end the devastating war in Syria. Up untill a few weeks ago the main issue on the table was how to build a transition government towards elections and whether or not Bashar Al Assad could be part of it. Now the paradigm has changed into the question how the world can get rid of the Al Qaeda linked Jihadists of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Shams).
However, the most surprising shift of the last weeks is the fact that Assad is back in the game. More and more people start to wonder if there is any alternative for Assad to fight Jihadism in Syria. Didn’t he always warn the world for the dangers of Al Qaeda if his regime would fall? The Assad regime might be bad, but a Caliphate under the leadership of the emir of ISIS is – no doubt – a far worse nightmare. Aren’t Assad and his forces the only guarantee against a full-fledged sectarian war expanding over the entire region? And didn’t Assad fulfil his promise and fully cooperated in destroying his chemical weapons? That at least seems the conviction of some European intelligence agencies that apparently already started to share information on Jihadist forces with the intelligence services of Damascus.
By bringing Bashar Al Assad back in the game, we tend to make abstraction of what was really happening in Syria since the revolution broke out on March 15, 2011. Even though there were no armed rebels during the first months of the revolt, Assad kept on repeating that the protesters were nothing more than terrorists and extremists. He must have been very happy when in January 2012 finally the first Jihadist group, Jabhat Al Nusra, appeared. He could use them as the reason for bombing Baba Amr (Homs) to the ground in February 2012 and (falsely) blame them for having perpetrated the massacre of Houla (Homs) in May of the same year.
The Assad regime must have been even happier when ISIS appeared as a force in Syria in April 2013. Now he could accuse them of his chemical attack in Ghouta in August 2013. With the help of Moscow many even believed it. It was this doubt that made the US and the UK change their mind on attacking Syria and using Russia’s proposal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons as a scapegoat. Suddenly Assad became someone we can make deals with, while the rebel forces and the political opposition remained divided and inefficient.
But even if we assume that ISIS and Al Qaeda are behind all these crimes against humanity, we should ask ourselves why it is that Assad is not fighting harder against them? Instead of throwing barrel bombs on neighbourhoods in Aleppo, he could attack Raqqa, the stronghold of ISIS. But he doesn’t. Instead of using a large amount of soldiers to starve out twenty thousand Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk, he could use these troops to fight Jihadists in the province of Deir Ezzor. But he doesn’t.
It is not Assad, but a coalition of rebel groups and the Free Syrian Army that decided to fight against ISIS and liberate towns and cities from their reign of terror. It is not Assad but the inhabitants of these towns who started to revolt against the rule of Al Qaeda. So, Syrian citizens and Syrian rebel groups are the ones who are taking a stance against the foreign fighters of ISIS, not Assad. It is equally remarkable that ISIS used much more suicide attacks against the coalition of rebel forces than against the regime.
In the search for a solution it is clear that dismissing everyone connected to the current regime would be a severe mistake. People of the current administration and army are absolutely needed to create the necessary stability and to rebuild the country. But thinking we should keep Bashar Al Assad in place as a partner against Al Qaeda and other affiliated Jihadist groups would be a historical error. This scenario is not only inacceptable for at least half of the Syrians. It would be a signal to all dictators that the more innocent citizens you kill, the more sectarian violence you instigate and the more extremism you accept, the more chances you have the world will forgive you.
There should be no misunderstanding: keeping Bashar Al Assad in place is the best guarantee that the war, the slaughter, the starvation and the torture will continue for many years to come. It will further expand the conflict throughout the region and will increase the amount of refugees worldwide. They will not come back when the reason for their misery stays put. A so-called leader who bombs his own people with SCUD rockets is no leader and never will be.
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