--- Manoj Saxena
A Syrian artwork depicts President Bashar Al-Assad with the country's flag colors in the backdrop (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
The earliest clear antecedent to the group now known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was formed in October 2006 as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). Much of its leadership came from an earlier Jihadist organization called the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the group was led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi until his death in April 2010, after which the radical cleric Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took command and spread ISIS insurgency into Syria, aligning himself with Sunni rebels fighting against the regime of the Alawite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Owing partly to the mismanagement of the fragile communal harmony between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq under the regime of Nouri al-Maliki ISIS managed to usurp large swathes of Northern Iraq from a demoralized Iraqi Army and made rapid advances into Syria. It came under conflict not only with the Syrian Army under the Assad administration but also with Kurdish fighters who resisted ISIS advances with renewed vigor following a brutal mass kidnapping of 186 Kurdish youngsters on May 30 of this year.
After facing a large but disorganized opposition from the Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army, and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces the insurgent group managed to gain allegiance from various factions of the Syrian and Iraqi rebels, and advanced well within both countries. It formally renamed itself as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on April 8, 2013. However, the ultimate coup d'etat for the organization came when it declared the establishment of an Islamic 'Caliphate' — elevating its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to the self-appointed role of 'Caliph' on territories under its control on June 29 of this year. Following a brutal suppression of both Muslim and non-Muslim minorities under its rule ISIS — now also known as Islamic State (IS) — released a video in which one of its militants brutally beheaded an American journalist named James Foley on August 19 of this year. In the same video it appeared that ISIS has another American journalist Steven Sotloff under its detention and it has threatened that he too will suffer a similar fate if the Obama administration continues to oppose the spread of the ISIS insurgency.
The recent atrocities against American nationals have prompted the West to take another look at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad— a ‘natural’ enemy of the ISIS group. But what possible political realignment — if any — can be expected in the light of the current events? The west is certainly not likely to roll out a red carpet welcome to the very man that it shunned following the Syrian quelling of mass protests in 2011 and allegations of use of chemical weapons against unarmed civilians. However, the two sides do find themselves fighting a common enemy — at least as far as the threat of ISIS is concerned. The death of James Foley has resulted in heated debate about the role of Assad in the war against the ISIS.
Shortly after the gruesome execution of Foley General Francis Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the British Army, spoke to BBC Radio 4 and said: "The old saying 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' has begun to have some resonance with our relationship with Iran." He further added that "I think it's going to have to have some resonance with our relationship with Assad." In a separate interview Philip Hammond, the incumbent British foreign secretary, told the BBC that engagement with the Assad led Syrian establishment 'would not advance the cause that we are all advocating here' and went on to say that 'one of the first things you learn in the Middle East is that my enemy's enemy is not necessarily my friend.' For its part, the Assad regime seems to have tacitly overlooked a US Army special forces bid to rescue Foley and has even sent out feelers to signal that it is ready to cooperate against ISIS with international powers. The Obama administration has ruled out a formal partnership against ISIS with either the Iranians or the Syrians under the Assad regime.
Although Syria under the Assad regime is understandably vying for global acceptance and legitimacy it is not exactly without 'all-weather' friends of its own. The Russians have maintained close strategic ties with Syria since a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed between the two countries in 1980. Both Russia and China vetoed limited punitive measures against Syria at the United Nations in 2011. The Iranians have been assisting the Assad regime against rebels since beginning of the Syrian Civil War. Assad also has close ties with the militant organization Hizbollah.
The Russians, the Iranians, and Hizbollah have a distinct disliking for American influence in the region but their enmity towards ISIS may cause them to behave with a slight difference in the present scenario. Saudi Arabia — another country which has traditionally viewed the Assad regime with disdain — has recently clamped down on potential ISIS recruits within its own borders and the influential Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh recently termed militants from both Al-Qaeda and ISIS as Islam's 'enemy number one'. However, overt western support for the Assad regime remains a less than realistic proposition. Not only are the US allies in the region, such as Turkey and Jordan, opposed to the Assad regime but the Free Syrian Army and a number of Sunni factions outside of the ISIS realm will also view any support to Assad with suspicion and this may bring about future complications.
Under such conditions the US will most likely have to follow a delicate balancing act in which it overtly supports the Iraqi government under Haider al-Abadi and arms the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to sustain a viable military campaign against ISIS while it 'tolerates' the existence of the Assad regime. Following the democratic victory of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestinian territories in the recent past the US cannot be overly enthusiastic about the overthrow of the Assad regime in favor of democratic elections in a radicalized Syria. It may very well look the other way while Russia and Iran arm Assad for his fight against ISIS. In this way Bashar al-Assad does not need to be a 'friend' to the US but does not necessarily have to be an 'enemy' either — at least for the time being. The recent mass execution of Syrian soldiers by ISIS following the battle of Tabqa Air Base now puts the Assad regime more firmly against the insurgent group than ever before. The West has historically made similar adjustments in policy while dealing with strongmen such as Joseph Stalin, Augusto Pinochet, and Abdul Rashid Dostum in the past and the ISIS threat to radicalize not only the region but other parts of the world may very well qualify Assad for temporary respite, and a greater chance for political survival in the future.