November 30, 2015

5 reasons we can’t beat Isis while Assad is in power

Key facts to bear in mind as the UK debates bombing Raqqa

When David Cameron says that “We do not have the luxury of being able to wait until the Syrian conflict is resolved before tackling ISIL”, he misunderstands where Isis comes from and what sustains it.

Isis thrives on the Syrian conflict, and as long as it continues, the group will remain powerful.

The conflict is being driven by the violence of the Assad regime. The UK should prioritise its efforts to end the fighting by protecting civilians and stopping indiscriminate attacks by the Assad regime and Russia on markets, hospitals and homes.

Here are five ways Assad helps Isis:

1. Assad played a key role in the birth of Isis

Isis was born in the US-administered prisons of Iraq, but it was Assad’s policy of opening his borders and encouraging extremists to fight jihad in Iraq that helped swell these groups.

2. Assad’s destabilisation of Syria incubated Isis

The Assad regime’s barrel bomb attacks on northern cities like Raqqa and the subsequent mass efflux of refugees provided the opportunity for Isis to slip across the border from Iraq and establish its roots in the rubble. Isis would have stayed as a relatively small group were it not for the creation of this power vacuum in Syria. Assad’s regime is responsible for 95% of civilian deaths in Syria and has killed 7 times more civilians than Isis in 2015.

3. Assad helps Isis fill its war chests with oil money

Assad has long been accused of buying oil from Isis. Only this week the US Treasury sanctioned George Haswani, a Syrian-Russian businessman, for using his company to facilitate oil trades between the Assad regime and the extremists. This money is used to buy more weapons that are turned on the Syrian people and used to plan attacks abroad.

4. Assad released extremists from jail to fill their ranks

Early on in the uprising, Assad released radicals from his prisons to bolster the extremists, while imprisoning and torturing pro-democracy activists. He was looking to undermine the movement for civil rights in Syria and force a choice between him and the extremists.

5. Assad (and now Russia) is killing the rebels who fight Isis

Only a fraction of the attacks Assad launches are on Isis, most are on the rebels challenging his rule. Similarly, 80% of Russia’s attacks are on these opposition areas – not on Isis. These are the same rebels who have driven Isis out of dozens of towns and villages in Syria, like Atareb, Saraqeb and large parts of Aleppo. These are the same rebels who David Cameron wants to liberate Raqqa.

Cameron is right that these rebel groups want to drive Isis out. But they simply cannot do it while the opposition areas they operate in are being indiscriminately bombed from the air. Any anti-Isis strategy must start by protecting these Sunni communities in the north so they can take the lead in defeating Isis. 

The UK should not be in the same airspace as the Syrian regime while it is using its helicopters and planes to kill so many. As Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s Syria envoy said “All evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of the civilian victims in the Syrian conflict have been caused by the use of such indiscriminate aerial weapons.”

Many Syrians already joke darkly about “traffic lights in the sky” that coordinate between the US and Assad regime bombings. Unless we differentiate ourselves from the regime’s targeting of civilians we will be driving these Sunni communities into the hands of Isis.

Bombing Isis while doing so little to stop these ongoing attacks will achieve nothing, except give Isis exactly what they want. 

Read more: First survey shows Syrians are fleeing from Assad, not Isis. Nearly all want to go home.