Syria’s president has tried harder than ever to recommend himself as a partner in the fight against “Islamic State.” However, it appears that Bashar al-Assad is a major part of the problem – and not part of the solution.
Outrage began to filter out from Germany’s opposition parties on Sunday after Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on television that she could envision the Bundeswehr working with some divisions of Syria’s military to fight “Islamic State” (IS). In just under five years of civil war, President Bashar al-Assad (left in photo) has ordered all manner of atrocities against dissident Syrians.
“I can’t imagine agreeing to any military operation that would mean fighting side by side with Assad,” said Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the chairwoman of the Greens parliamentary group.
Clarification swiftly followed. On Monday, Defense Ministry spokesman Jens Flosdorff again spelled out the government’s position: “There will not be any cooperation with Assad now, nor any cooperation with troops under Assad.”
Syria’s president has been commending himself to the international community as a possible partner in the fight against terrorism. He even tried to pitch himself the day after the November 13 attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead.
“We warned three years ago what could happen in Europe,” Assad told the television station Europe 1. “Unfortunately, those in charge in Europe didn’t listen to us,” he added. “It’s pointless just making statements against terrorism: You have to fight it.”
Political and security circles in the United States and Europe might ultimately take a similar view. “We will eradicate them,” the French newspaper Le Monde quoted one of President Francois Hollande’s advisors as saying. “We will kill them.”
Another source told the paper that the French government would not be squeamish about its methods. “We will continue to carry out secret service activities for which we cannot be publicly called to account,” the source said, according to Le Monde. “It’s important that we continue with them.” The security agent confirmed that Hollande had fully endorsed this strategy.
Since November 13, the pressure to act swiftly against terrorism has become even greater. For two weeks now, Hollande has been trying to establish an international coalition against IS. French officials say they could envisage cooperating with Syria’s military, but on television Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, for that to happen, Assad would have to relinquish control of the army. “It’s not possible with Assad in charge,” he said.
‘Highly poisonous toad’
The German government, which plans to contribute reconnaissance planes and about 1,200 soldiers to the fight against IS, has adopted an equally firm position with regard to Assad. However, the discussion continues about whether the fight against IS can be won without the strongman’s support. “The only eligible ground troops are Assad’s government troops,” the former diplomat and leader of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, told Handelsblatt magazine on Monday. He said it was therefore necessary “to kiss the toad Assad for the time being.”
In response, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted that Assad was a “highly poisonous toad” who for a very long time had allowed groups like IS to do as they pleased because they were also fighting his opponents, the secular opposition. It also allowed him to present himself as the lesser evil, next to IS at least.
Above all, though, the paper warns, cooperation with Assad risks alienating the secular forces who have been fighting against the Syrian president for nearly five years and sacrificing a great deal in the process. “By cooperating with Assad, the West would make tens of thousands of enemies who have devoted their lives to the fight against Assad,” the paper wrote.
It seems that standing shoulder to shoulder with Assad is unthinkable for the additional reason that it entails other, almost incalculable risks. The autocrat’s most committed partner, Vladimir Putin (right in photo), has sent his military to Syria, and it is rigorously pursuing all of Assad’s enemies – including the secular opposition. Furthermore, Russia has no consideration for the civilian population. At the weekend the Russian air force attacked jihadist positions in the province of Idlib. According to media reports, dozens of civilians were killed. Meanwhile Syria’s air force dropped 20 barrel bombs in Darya, west of Damascus, making no allowances for civilians. Statistics quoted in the media state that almost 3,000 people have been killed by Assad’s barrel bombs in the current year alone.
By deploying such ruthless methods against civilians, Assad risks achieving the opposite of what he publicly declares is his most noble aim: destroying IS. His barrel bombs threaten to alienate more and more Syrians.
For the United States and Europe, then, cooperation with Assad is not just a moral question; it is also a strategic one. Allying with a regime that doesn’t care about the lives of its people would forfeit respect across the Middle East, far beyond Syria itself. A large proportion of the Arab public would see the West – once again – as the partner of a criminal dictator.