How to Beat ISIS and Assad
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the moderate Free Syrian Army is stronger than you think, and the Assad regime is tottering. Will America give it a push?
Everyone, it seems, is now aboard the Let’s Get ISIS Train, shoveling coal into the engine. That’s understandable, given the two horrifying murders of American journalists, and it’s as it should be. But there are ways to do it and ways not to do it. And of all the ways not to do it, surely the worst would be to ally in any way, shape, or form with Bashar al-Assad, as some allegedly serious people have been suggesting.
Are they kidding? Let’s remember, if we can take the America-centric blinders off our eyes for 30 seconds, that on the butchery scale, Assad is leaps and bounds ahead of the Islamic State. He may not be killing Americans and posting gruesome videos of it, but he is responsible for at least 200,000 dead, climbing the genocide charts with a bullet (that tally puts him in the company of Liberia’s notorious Charles Taylor and has him knocking on the door of the all-time Top Twenty). He is murdering innocents daily—somewhere between 30 and 80 Syrian civilians die every day, the vast majority at the hands of the regime (10 children were killed Wednesday when Assad’s bombs hit the bus they were riding on). He gassed his own people. Yes, the world’s a messy place. But lines must be drawn somewhere, and if this isn’t where, then we shouldn’t bother to pretend any longer that such lines exist.
And aside from the moral bridge to hell we’d be crossing, the strategic considerations are nearly as real. You strengthen Assad, you’re also strengthening Iran and Hezbollah—the latter at just the moment when its standing in the Arab world is at a low point precisely because it’s been fighting for Assad. Yes, ISIS is a more direct threat to the United States and should be our first concern. But it can’t be our only concern. So the crucial question is this: How does the United States fight the Islamic State while not helping Assad—and indeed if possible while hurting both simultaneously?
These were the questions on my mind as I paid a call Wednesday on Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria who resigned this year out of frustration (or disgust, take your pick) with Barack Obama’s refusal to do more to aid those “dentists and pharmacists” in the moderate Syrian opposition. Not many Americans know the situation more deeply than Ford, who survived not only American bureaucratic torpor but also death threats while stationed in Damascus. And he says we must, and can, hurt both the Islamic State and Assad.
“I don’t think hitting particular Islamic State targets in Syria fixes the problem,” Ford told me. “In some instances perhaps it helps in a very technical way. But the long-term solution in Syria, as in Iraq, is for there to be a new government that is able to rally a large majority of Syrians to resist, to fight against, and ultimately to contain and reduce the appeal of these extremists.”
That may sound impossible to you, but Ford makes a strong case that the United States can guide events toward that result. The key thing that has to happen: The moderate Sunni opposition—and yes, Ford says without irony, these folks may not be a bunch of Thomas Jeffersons, but they are comparatively moderate—needs to find and reach out to disaffected Alawi leaders within the Assad regime and offer them a political roadmap for a reconciliation plan and a post-Assad government. The United States, he believes, should offer the opposition and the Free Syrian Army substantial money and materiel, but contingent on evidence that the political reaching out is real.
“The Syrian opposition has to put forward a program that appeals to a segment of the Alawi,” Ford said. “I think many of them are ready to jump if they had something to jump onto. But if the opposition doesn’t put anything forward, then they have nothing to jump onto, and they’re just kind of stuck. They’re terrified. They don’t want the Islamic State to take over Syria, and neither do we. But they’re worried they’ll be murdered if it does. That’s not an unreasonable thing to be worried about. So I wouldn’t increase assistance to the moderate opposition without it coming forward with a real effort to develop a political initiative and to have meetings with Alawi supporters, which they certainly can do.”
Ford emphasized that dissension and anger at the Assad family is reaching a tipping point among the Alawi. On August 12, some fed-up Alawi activists started an anti-regime public awareness campaign called “Scream of the Nation” that is reportedly generating high interest among members of Assad’s own sect.
Ford’s political roadmap would include these basic elements: plans for reconciliation, promises of no communal retribution, commitments that Alawi communities would not be put under the watch of Sunni security teams, and outlines for what a new government would look like and who would be in it. The problem, he says, is that moderate opposition leaders he spoke with while ambassador just weren’t quite mentally ready to do the reaching out.
“I haven’t seen the opposition put forward any of this stuff,” Ford told me. “I think because they believe deep down, a lot of them believe that there’s just no use negotiating with the Alawis. And if you say to them, ‘What, are you saying you’re gonna exterminate the Alawis?’ ‘Oh, no, no, we wouldn’t do that.’ And then you say, ‘Well, then you’re gonna have to negotiate with them.’ ‘Uhhhhhhhhh…yeah, maybe one day.’ And then you say, ‘Well, maybe it’s time to start.’ ‘Ohhhhh, first we want surface-to-air missiles. First we want a no-fly zone.’ Deep down, a lot of them still hope for enough American military intervention that they can win a military victory. Deep down. So I think we have to say to them, ‘If we’re going to increase our military assistance, it’s not in order to bring down the regime, it’s to get elements of the regime to the table and negotiating seriously, because its own people say ‘We’re sick of dying for the Assad family.’”
It’s not just Alawi elite that are scattering. The regime is short on soldiers now, says Ford. This is good news, although it has produced one appalling irony—the army, rather than fighting in many communities, is simply cutting off their food supply. “The regime doesn’t have enough soldiers to seize ground,” he said. “So what they’ll do is cut off the roads leading into a neighborhood and sit down in an almost Medieval-style siege and try to starve the people out.” Thousands have died as a result of this tactic.
Meanwhile, Ford argues that the moderate Free Syrian Army is a far more credible fighting force than most people think. It “varies unit to unit,” he says, but the FSA is 70,000 to 90,000 strong—far bigger than ISIS—and is fighting both the regime and the Islamic State respectably in northern and western provinces and holding on to a key Damascus suburb. It controls a border crossing in the south and has two regime air bases surrounded in the northwest. The FSA is even reportedly now steadily paying its soldiers around $100 a month (although ISIS pays “upwards of $400 or $500 a month,” Ford notes).
As I’ve written, Syria represents Obama’s biggest failure. It’s a little late for the 200,000, but if Ford is correct about the weakness of the regime, at least there’s still a chance to move events in a positive direction. Will Obama take it? I think eventually he’ll have no choice. So why not sooner rather than later? We’re not going to bomb ISIS off the face of the earth. At best we’re going to hamper the group with airstrikes while hopefully doing what we can to help establish governments in Iraq and Syria that can marginalize its appeal. If we can do that while taking down a genocidal tyrant at the same time…well, Mr. President, this is exactly the kind of thing “hope” was supposed to mean back in 2008.