Oh, by the way, Assad and ISIS are basically coordinating in Syria now

Seems like an odd tandem, I know, until you remember that we’re coordinating with Iran, a country which most Americans think is destined for nuclear terrorism against the west and its allies once it has the bomb.

I mean, there are strange bedfellows and there are strange bedfellows.

Around 64 percent of verifiable ISIS attacks in Syria this year targeted other non-state groups, an analysis of the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center’s (JTIC) database showed. Just 13 percent of the militants’ attacks during the same period — the year through Nov. 21 — targeted Syrian security forces. That’s a stark contrast to the Sunni extremist group’s operations in Iraq, where more than half of ISIS attacks (54 percent) were aimed at security forces…

JTIC’s data shows that [Assad’s] counterterrorism operations — more than two-thirds of which were airstrikes — skew heavily towards groups whose names aren’t ISIS. Of 982 counterterrorism operations for the year up through Nov. 21, just 6 percent directly targeted ISIS

“They both recognize there’s a mutual benefit in crushing other groups,” Henman said. That’s because eventually ISIS is going to have to take on Assad’s government — and both sides want the battlefield to be clear of other potential competitors…

Some rebels suspect coordination between the Syrian regime and ISIS. Yusuf Abu Abdullah, one of the leaders of the Al-Mujaheddin Army in Aleppo, said when his fighters have attacked regime bases, they have come under separate attacks from ISIS. That’s forced them to withdraw and battle the other militants instead of Assad’s forces.

ISIS is the strongest Sunni militia in Syria and therefore the chief threat to Assad’s rule. Assad is the strongest military force on the ground in Syria and therefore the chief threat to ISIS’s caliphate. Why aren’t they slugging it out? Multiple reasons, actually (why would Assad worry about bombing ISIS when Obama’s doing it for him?), but the main one is just as Walter Russell Mead says — they’re each following the Leninist approach of “heightening the contradictions” between rival factions to maximize their own power. That’s been standard practice in the Middle East for decades but Syria presents an unusually stark example. Arab autocrats know that secularists fear being ruled by Islamists; Islamists know that most of the public hates the resident autocrat. Each uses public animosity towards the other to position themselves as the only viable bulwark against total domination by their opponent. As Mead says, Egypt was a textbook case — voters installed the Muslim Brotherhood after deposing Mubarak, then the Brotherhood was itself deposed with popular support by the new military dictator Sisi in a counterrevolution. Both sides benefit from keeping the (few) “moderates” in the country marginalized, lest the public begin to consider an alternate, third way approach. Each wants to be the only game in town against the other.

The same thing’s happening in Syria but with more guns and bombs. If you believe the WSJ, it might have started years ago, when Assad allegedly made a deliberate decision to go easy on ISIS and train most of his fire on less extreme rebel groups instead. Assad doesn’t fear ISIS as much as he fears the prospect of a “moderate” Sunni outfit gaining ground and attracting attention from western powers who want to replace him with a government they can work with. So long as ISIS is the only alternative in Syria, America will lay off of him. Likewise, ISIS doesn’t fear Assad as much as it fears the prospect of a less austere “moderate” Sunni outfit gaining strength and supplanting it as chief protector of the Sunni majority, which would start to gobble up support for the caliphate from within. That’s why the White House keeps chasing the pipe dream of arming Syrian “moderates” — logically, it’s the only alternative to a Syria led by Assad or ISIS (or divided between them, of course). And since we can’t really go after one without inadvertently aiding the other, we might have no choice but to go after both simultaneously. Obama’s learned that lesson the hard way. By initially focusing on attacking ISIS, he alienated some of the less extreme Sunni groups there whose top priority is stopping Assad. Some of those groups joined ISIS in the aftermath, leaving the supply of “moderates” even thinner than it was before. As of last month, Obama was rethinking all of that; he reportedly asked his national security team in mid-November to see if there’s a way to target ISIS while also removing Assad from power. The only way to move Syria past war, in theory, is to offer Sunnis and Alawites a third, less extreme alternative to those two.

So, tell me how we do it. After 10 years of sectarian bitterness in Iraq produced a caliphate in Anbar province and with “moderates” in Syria even scarcer than they usually are in the Middle East, how do you get Iran and its Sunni neighbors to agree on a mutually acceptable coalition government for Damascus? It’s hard to believe Iran would tolerate even a “moderate” Sunni-led regime, knowing full well how the “moderate” Shiite they backed in Iraq for seven years treated the minority sect there. It’s also hard to believe Sunnis in Syria would accept being governed by a new, more “moderate” Alawite regime, knowing full well that Assad himself was regarded for years by many in the west as someone moderate enough to do business with. (Remember Hillary’s infamous “reformer” comment?) It seems like things will change, as is usually true in war, only when one side decides that it can’t afford to bleed anymore and has some reassurance that the victors won’t put them to the sword if they surrender, which probably means a peacekeeping force will be necessary. Show of hands: Which countries want to volunteer for that?

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David Strom 6:41 PM on January 26, 2023