Syria’s Assad could benefit most from renewed global push against ISIL

Syria’s Assad could benefit most from renewed global push against ISIL

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad may turn out to be the biggest beneficiary of last week’s massacre in Paris. That’s because the renewed urgency with which Western powers are prioritizing the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — the lowest common denominator among outside powers intervening in Syria — appears likely to defer any effort to oust the Assad regime.
“I’m seeing signs that France might reconsider its foreign policy with regards to Syria,” said Karim Emile Bitar, a Paris-based analyst with the Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques. France had, two years ago, taken a lead among Western powers in pushing for Assad’s ouster, even urging the United States to participate in a more muscular military intervention to restrain the regime’s forces and facilitate a rebel victory. Now, however, the talk in Paris is of coordination with Russia, which has been conducting its own air campaign against both ISIL and other enemies of the Assad regime, a longtime client of Moscow.
Until now, France, the U.S. and their Arab allies who all oppose Assad have avoided aligning their own military efforts against ISIL with Russia’s.
But with Russia and France both ramping up retaliatory airstrikes against ISIL — both countries flew sorties over Syria on Tuesday — such differences may narrow. Moscow acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that a Russian airliner that crashed in Sinai two weeks ago was downed by a bomb, adding to its own incentive to target ISIL, which had claimed responsibility.
Friday’s massacre in Paris has amplified calls among French politicians for coordination with Russia — and Assad — against ISIL. “Most right-wing politicians are in favor of getting closer to Putin to solve the Syrian crisis,” Bitar said. “The lesser evil narrative … is triumphing because of these [Paris] attacks, so Assad and Putin are among the victors.”
Following Moscow’s acknowledgment of the plane bombing, Putin said, “Our air force’s military work in Syria must not simply be continued. It must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.”
Syrian opposition figures believe the French and others are taking the bait set by ISIL.
“The main goal is to force France to change its stances, to escalate its campaign in Syria,” said Fahd Al-Masri, a Syrian opposition figure based in Paris. “Any terror attack carries a political message. Everyone’s priority now is to fight terrorism, not topple Bashar al-Assad, who is the reason for the birth and development of terrorism in Syria.”
French President Francois Hollande is expected to make the case for more sustained international action against ISIL when he heads to both Moscow and Washington later this week.
Escalated military action against ISIL is being planned in parallel with a greater diplomatic effort to resolve the Syrian civil war by drawing in all the international players backing Syrian factions. Last month, Iran was invited to join talks for the first time, after an apparent shift by the U.S. and its allies over Tehran’s inclusion — an option long opposed by Iran’s chief regional rival Saudi Arabia, which supports Syrian rebel groups opposed to Assad.
On Saturday, just a day after the Paris attacks, diplomats from 19 nations meeting in Vienna agreed on a broad framework for ending the Syrian conflict, prioritizing a cease-fire. And that framework made no mention of ousting Assad. Further discussions, which would include Syrian opposition figures, are expected soon.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the attacks in Paris ¬— as well as those in Turkey and Lebanon before them, all claimed by ISIL — could compel the regional actors to pursue a dual track of continuing to target ISIL positions in Syria while ramping up diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian conflict between the Assad government and non-ISIL Syrian opposition groups.
But until now, intractable differences over the fate of Assad have stymied efforts to broker a political solution.
Russia and Iran, Assad’s principal backers, have at various points indicated that Assad could eventually depart as a part of a transition process agreed on by Syrians, but have pushed back against any effort to make his departure a perquisite for a political solution — which has put them at odds with Assad’s regional enemies. Syrian opposition groups balk at the notion that Assad could be allowed to remain in power during a transition period.
“Agreement would need some consensus on the future of the Assad clan — which Russia and Iran regard as legitimate rulers and the U.S., France and U.K. still, with weakening resolve, regard as a main provoker of Sunni jihadism,” David Gardner wrote in the Financial Times on Tuesday. “Yet Vienna seems the best hope that external actors now steering by narrow interest and spinning compasses in Syria may, after Paris, conclude the stakes are too high not to agree.”
Russia and Assad, on one hand, and France, the U.S. and their allies on the other, are unlikely to directly coordinate actions against ISIL until traction on the peace track continues. But the renewed global campaign against ISIL may nonetheless end up allowing Russia and Assad a greater say over the terms of a Syrian peace process than the West and its Arab allies would have liked.

With additional reporting by Michael Pizzi.
Source: Aljazeera


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