The West Must Realize It Cannot Beat ISIS Without Also Beating Assad


Three hundred thousand dead, four million refugees, nearly eight million internally displaced, 600,000 trapped in starvation sieges and countless others maimed, traumatized and rotting in jails where torture, sexual abuse and starvation are routine. This is the partial bill, to date, for the political survival strategy of a Syrian clan headed by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Recent reporting of diplomatic discussions about a potential role for Assad in a transitional unity government raises a pertinent question: can the person responsible for this horrific bill be re-packaged as the reliable overseer of security arrangements featuring civilian protection?

For a complete accounting of the consequences of Assad's tenure, one must include the Islamic State: the criminal-terrorist marriage of al Qaeda in Iraq and Saddam Hussein loyalists that now occupies a major part of Syria courtesy of Assad regime illegitimacy and connivance. The result is a Syria bleeding terrified humanity onto its neighbors; a dying state hosting a deadly political virus spawning infections globally while attracting cells from around the Sunni Muslim world.

The response from the international community to the humanitarian and security catastrophe that is Syria has been wholly inadequate. President Obama seeks to "degrade and destroy" ISIS. Yet single-minded focus on achieving a nuclear agreement with Iran led the West to avert its gaze from the ISIS-abetting, civilian-centric depredations of an Assad regime fully supported by Tehran.

For ISIS, confronting Assad alone -- an Assad supported by Iran and ideally the West -- would be a recruiting gift of untold value.

Washington's theory of the case had been that raising Syria with Iran -- even in side talks well-removed from the nuclear main event -- would provoke Tehran into abandoning the nuclear talks and forgoing a treasure in sanctions relief and foreign direct investment. Apparently, it never occurred to Iran's Supreme Leader that the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union would be offended in the least by his country's facilitation of mass murder in Syria and by his support of a family whose actions had made nearly all of eastern Syria safe for ISIS.

While coalition aircraft chase ISIS gunmen with high performance aircraft, anti-regime and anti-ISIS rebels are subjected by the regime to barrel bombs and starvation sieges, creating recruits for ISIS in Syria and around the world. Simultaneously, Shia militiamen imported from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan by Iran battle anti-regime and anti-ISIS Syrian rebels in the parts of western Syria Iran hopes to preserve as a bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Meanwhile, American diplomats chase their Russian counterparts for help in terminating Assad rule: as if Moscow wants Assad gone or can make it happen.

Regime forces and ISIS rarely face one another in combat. Rather, they focus on trying to eliminate Syrian nationalist alternatives to each. Assad and his ISIS counterpart, "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, share the same objective: each, for his own reason, wants to face the other as one of the last two political forces left standing in Syria. For Assad, facing ISIS alone would be the dream come true: his long-sought opportunity to force the West to choose between him and something so spectacularly bad that some consider it even worse than him: the 21st century's premier mass murderer. For Baghdadi, confronting Assad alone -- an Assad supported by Iran and ideally the West -- would be a recruiting gift of untold value. It would bolster his leadership credentials among disaffected Sunni Muslims around the world.

ISIS cannot be beaten from the air while the iron lung pumping oxygen into it -- the Assad regime -- is left to do its worst.

In Iraq, ISIS has a constituency: Iraqi Sunnis disenfranchised by the Iranian-supported sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In Syria, ISIS has no natural constituency. And Assad's base has been reduced to members of Syria's minorities and a handful of Sunni supporters, all of whom have been taken hostage by his war crimes and crimes against humanity; all of whom fear retribution for barrel bombs dropped, children starved and women raped. Syria -- not Iraq -- is the place where ISIS can be handed a decisive, near-term defeat. But it cannot be beaten from the air while the iron lung pumping oxygen into it -- the Assad regime -- is left to do its worst.

Legitimate governance -- not war -- is the ultimate cure for a Syrian illness rapidly becoming a regional and global contagion. Yet without an effective, surgical intervention of a kinetic variety, the patient has no hope of surviving. At its present, glacial rate of recruitment, vetting and training, the American enlistment of Syrian rebels to fight ISIS would meet its modest personnel goal perhaps by mid-century. What is needed now is professional ground forces to work with coalition aircraft to kill ISIS in Syria. With all of eastern Syria liberated from ISIS, a governmental alternative to the Assad family business can be established and a basis for eventual political negotiations created. And ISIS in Iraq would be denied a Syrian safe haven and headquarters of incalculable value.

Business as usual will give ISIS time to sink real roots in Syria, with disastrous consequences. Yet killing ISIS in Syria will not keep it dead and will not prevent something even worse from arising unless Assad's mass atrocities stop. Iran could end them with an order. Can Western statesmen muster the courage to confront Tehran diplomatically on this point? Or will they continue to cower, fearful that Iran might yet walk away from a nuclear deal that would move its weaponization breakout period from two months to 15 years in return for lucrative compensation? Secretary of State John Kerry suggests talks with Iran on Syria may start once the nuclear deal is approved. Why wait? People are dying, and ISIS is benefiting.

Legitimate governance -- not war -- is the ultimate cure for a Syrian illness rapidly becoming a regional and global contagion.

Syrian political negotiations are impossible while these mass atrocities continue. Yet if Iran chooses to perpetuate its unconditional support for mass murder, a West actually intent on defeating ISIS while seeking a political transition from Assad rule to something civilized will have no choice but to push back. Indeed, if President Barack Obama can demonstrate his willingness and ability to stand up to Iran in the battle against ISIS, he might gain support in Congress for the nuclear deal.

If diplomacy fails, the worst of Assad's atrocities -- the barrel bombs -- can be curtailed and even ended by military means far short of invading and occupying Syria. Iran should be given the opportunity to end these abominations with a word. Tehran should also be asked to lift the starvation sieges and permit full access to needy populations by the humanitarian agencies of the United Nations. It probably will not wish to do these things. Yet it should be given a time-limited opportunity to do so.

Pretending to make common cause with Iran against ISIS during the nuclear negotiations may have been someone's idea of a smart negotiating tactic. In Iraq, however, Iran aids ISIS by promoting Shia militias instead of supporting the Iraqi government. In Syria, Iran's client has created conditions permitting ISIS to thrive. Iran is no ally of the West in the fight against ISIS. Indeed, chasing ISIS with airplanes while giving a free rein to Assad is as much a losing proposition for the West as it is a sure winner for Iran. Western leaders fully realize that Assad and Baghdadi are two sides of the same debased coin. They should act accordingly if "degrading and defeating" ISIS is more than a slogan.

Women and children freed from ISIS