There’s nerve and then there’s pure chutzpah. This time last year, the United States was considering airstrikes against the Syrian government in response for using chemical weapons against civilians. Now the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is touting his government as the only force that can stop the rise of Islamic militants, inviting international support to aid them in that.
Despite its recent successes in Iraq, the main operating grounds for the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is in the Syria portion of the territory it controls. And on Sunday, it proved just how strong it is there despite facing down nearly every actor in the region in its pursuit of a solidified state to control. It was then that fighters with ISIS managed to seize control of the Tabqa air base in northern Syria from regime security forces. As the New York Times explains, the move “followed the group’s seizing of two other Syrian military bases and gave it effective control of Raqqa Province, which abuts the Turkish border and whose capital city, Raqqa, has long served as the group’s de facto headquarters.”
This has left Syria in the position of being more than willing and able to make the case that it is the last line of defense against ISIS and a partner in the war against it and other radical groups. In a televised press conference, Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem said that his country is willing to cooperate with any country fighting against militants. “Syria, geographically and operationally, is the center of the international coalition to fight Islamic State,” he said, adding “States must come to it if they are serious in combating terrorism.”
But this shouldn’t be taken as a greenlight to act such as the one the Iraqi government gave to the U.S. in fighting ISIS. Using airstrikes in Syria would have to come with Damascus’ approval before they take place, Moualem said. “Anything outside this (cooperation) is considered aggression,” he said, according to Reuters. Moualem also insisted that any airstrikes that take place be done under the umbrella of the United Nations’, presumably under the guise of a Security Council resolution approving such strikes.
The irony inherent in al-Moualem’s statement runs deep. First, there’s the previously mentioned chemical weapons attacks that had the U.S. prepared to launch a military campaign against the regime as punishment. It’s been less than a week since the one-year anniversary of the sarin gas attack that killed an estimated 1,300 men, women, and children. Only the intervention of Russia with a proposal to remove and destroy Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile prevented that from being the case. That process was completed last week, removing one of the few reasons for the international community to continue to tolerate the Assad regime, whose cooperation was necessary to complete the destruction process; combating ISIS gives that legitimacy argument a new veneer.
The second point is that the Syrian government has now spent years denouncing the United Nations and particularly any Security Council attempts to find a peaceful solution to the civil war. It’s the prolonged fighting between the Assad government and the motley assortment of rebel groups attempting to depose him that gave ISIS the space to grow and metastasize in the first place. And Assad’s backers in the Security Council — Russia and China — have prevented any form of international sanctions from being placed on Assad to force him into actual negotiations for a transfer of power, exactly the type of deal that the United States required from soon to be former-Iraqi prime minister Nour al-Maliki before increased American assistance would begin.
Third, Assad’s government has been long-accused of actually fostering and supporting the rise of ISIS for just such a return into the international fold. “Al-Qaeda has taken control of oil producing areas and is selling oil to regime forces, indicating a relationship with the regime,” a Western diplomat told TIME magazine in January of the relationship between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS with Assad’s supporters. “From the first days of the revolution (in March 2011), Assad denounced the organisation as being the work of radical Salafists, so he released the Salafists he had created in his prisons to justify the claim,” a member of the Syrian opposition said to Newsweek more recently. “If you do not have an enemy, you create an enemy.”
But now even supporters of Assad’s regime have questioned just why ISIS was allowed to set-up camp in Syria rather than being rooted out earlier. Syrian government-approved strikes would also have the consequence of appeasing those critics while freeing up regime forces to handle the threat of other jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which until ISIS’s string of victories was considered the group to beat in Syria. It would also give the Assad government the time and space needed to turn its attention more fully towards defeating the Free Syrian Army and the moderate opposition that the United States has been supporting for years. Members of the FSA have accused the administration of not moving fast enough to respond to their calls for arms and other support in fighting against ISIS.
For now the United States is considering expanding its air campaign in Iraq across the border into Syria. But on Sunday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey indicated that since ISIS isn’t considered a direct threat to the United States at this time, despite previous threats from the group, any potential strikes in Syria remain hypothetical. “I can tell you with great clarity and certainty that if that threat existed inside of Syria that it would certainly be my strong recommendation that we would deal with it,” Dempsey said. “I have every confidence that the president of the United States would deal with it.”
And the U.S.’ rhetoric against Assad has remained the same, no matter how many may be advocating for aligning with the regime in order to defeat ISIS. In his statement on the death of American journalist James Foley at ISIS’ hands, President Obama made sure to mention Assad — though not by name — as a “tyrant” whom the Syrian people would be better without.
“We basically think that the reason that [ISIS] was able to get the safe haven that they establish in parts of Syria is because of Assad’s policies,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said in an NPR interview last week, citing the “barbarism against his own people” which “created an enormous vacuum” in Syria. “So he’s part of the problem – Assad,” Rhodes concluded.