Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said for the first time what everyone knows—that Bashar al-Assad “derives some benefit” from the bombing campaign against ISIS. This came immediately after the revelation that Hagel had written a terse memo to National Security Adviser Susan Rice warning that the Syria policy, as The New York Times put it, “was in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad.”
Hagel is correct, and there are two main reasons why: first, Assad has been very cynically crafty about making it look like his regime is working with the coalition, which splinters and dispirits the opposition. Second, the regime, like ISIS but unlike the opposition, knows the tribes of Syria, where ISIS mostly operates, well and is now beginning to exploit those relationships to its benefit. But while the regime’s machinations are producing impressive results, they are limited, short lived and are increasingly diminishing the rebels’ trust in the mission, which is further complicating the effort to uproot ISIS in Syria. If the anti-ISIS mission is to succeed, the international coalition must make it much clearer that Assad needs to go—and reflect that in concert steps on the ground.
When the United States decided to strike against the Islamic State inside Syria, it was both morally and practically right not to align with the Assad regime. Alliance with the regime, which killed thousands of Syrian civilians systematically and with impunity for three years, would have made it much harder to form a regional coalition to fight ISIS and even harder to find rebel forces willing to cooperate with the mission.
Since then, however, the situation with regard to the fight against ISIS has changed.
Immediately after the airstrikes began, the Syrian regime took the initiative to force itself into the international alliance. The regime quickly made it clear to Syrians that there was, at least, a de facto collaboration between the international coalition and the Syrian authorities. Syrian warplanes launched a bombing campaign in areas where ISIS and other jihadist groups operated, in eastern and northern Syria.
According to rebels in those areas, Syrian warplanes bombed areas controlled by groups other than ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, the extremist group from which ISIS broke last year, near the same times the international coalition struck jihadists’ targets, to give the impression either that the regime and the international coalition are working together, or that the coalition is striking other targets beyond ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
The regime’s game seems to be working. Increasingly, cynicism among the rebels toward the airstrikes is entrenched and this attitude has led to a new trend: Fighting between Syrian rebels and the Islamic State, common in most areas only two months ago, is now noticeably rare. Just before the airstrikes began in Syria, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, Legion 5, Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, and other Free Syrian Army and Kurdish factions pledged to take the fight against ISIS to areas controlled by the jihadist group.
Today, these groups have either backed down on such promises or been occupied by infighting or by desperate attempts to hold back the advances of the Syrian regime in Aleppo and Idlib. Even in Kobane and eastern Aleppo, where rebel forces are battling ISIS, it was because ISIS brought the fight to them, not the other way around.
Meanwhile, major rebel forces in the north have been engaged in serious infighting over the past week. This significantly undermines the rebels’ standing in northern Syria and minimizes their capabilities to push against ISIS in Raqqa.
The regime, on the other hand, seems to be stepping up its fight against ISIS targets in the Aleppo eastern countryside, in Hasaka, and in Deir Ezzor. In Aleppo, the regime’s frontlines are getting ever closer to those of ISIS in the eastern parts of the city.
Inside ISIS-held areas, the Assad regime is quietly working to revitalize long-existing intelligence networks to fight ISIS there. According to sources in eastern Syria, the regime has established a training camp for members of tribes in the desert of Palmyra and has been encouraging local tribes to rise up against ISIS, through a network locally known as “Jamie Jamie” after a regime officer who was killed last year.
It is important to emphasize that ISIS operates in predominantly tribal areas, and the jihadist group has a decade-long experience of dealing with tribes in Iraq and in Syria. But the other force that is well positioned to deal with tribes is the Assad regime, especially if compared to the Syrian opposition, which has failed to tap into tribal labyrinth throughout the uprising. The regime’s experience with tribes and its intelligence links to individuals in tribal areas give it an advantage over the opposition—although not necessarily over ISIS, since the regime lacks the popular support and credibility in those areas as well as the manpower to fill the void after ISIS.
However lacking in popular support, though, the regime has the keys and the coherent institutional structure to instigate and accommodate a rebellion against ISIS. That can only happen, though, through a credible political process that is acceptable to the communities currently under ISIS rule, who tend to oppose the regime. Given the ISIS grip on its territories, the process will have to involve deep knowledge and connection about these areas but also incentives and political legitimacy. In tribal areas, such legitimacy cannot be gained while Assad in power.
The United States should use the airstrikes and the coalition assembled around it to make sure that there is a regional consensus to deal with the Syrian conflict. The first thing to do is to pressure Assad out, because that’s the most toxic element of the conflict. Putting Assad into a leaving process will convince many people in the opposition and within the silent majority who are now skeptical to think about joining the process. Unless that takes place, people will see any effort that does not target the Assad regime as illegitimate, and that will only play into the hands of ISIS.
Hassan Hassan is an analyst with the Delma Institute, a research center in Abu Dhabi. Follow him on Twitter @hxhassan