Word from Syria: don't drift towards Assad to tackle Isis

If Europe wishes to find a solution for the problems of the Middle East, it needs to correct a number of misconceptions about Syria. Most importantly, it needs to realise that the key threat is not ISIS but the Assad regime, both of which are engaged with a fight to the death with Europe's only possible ally: the rebels.

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Published in the Huffington Post 21st December

Europe cannot afford to collaborate with Assad.

Assad's regime has destroyed the lives of millions of Syrians. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, and half of the country's civilians have been displaced in the regime's efforts to cling to power. The UN has documented tens of thousands of tortured prisoners, thousands of children starved to death in city sieges or slaughtered in the countryside by militiamen. Only a handful of these events, such as the 2012 Houla massacre, made headlines.

Such crimes against humanity are not just the legacy of Assad's regime: they are his day-to-day policies. They are on-going.

It is clear why it is unacceptable for Western democracies to collaborate with Assad's regime like they did before 2011. Imagine if Europe, which encouraged and supported Syria's popular uprising, not only turned a blind eye to the people's suffering but actually assisted Assad in his total annihilation of all who dared to criticise him?

I spoke to Rami Jarah, an independent Syrian journalist who reported from Aleppo during coalition strikes against ISIS. He tells me that no Syrian, living under continuous bombardment for the last three years, can understand why any Western democracy would even consider collaborating with a war criminal like Assad. Public opinion is already baffled, if not disgusted and angry, that the United States and its allies have decided to bomb ISIS in Syria without laying a finger on Assad's warplanes. Civilians living in Aleppo now feel like they are being bombed by the regime during the day, and by the coalition by night. The way they see it, nobody cares about them - not even Europe.

Jarah warns me that collaborating with Assad in order to tackle ISIS is deeply dangerous, and may well be counterproductive. It would leave ISIS as the only apparent opponent to the regime, making it more attractive to Syrians. Most deeply resent ISIS, but many join its ranks because they believe they have no other choice, there is safety in numbers and it is the least bad option.

The Syrian army, meanwhile, has neither the military capacity nor the required motive to confront ISIS fighters. They have purposefully avoided targeting ISIS military bases, instead bombing civilian areas in Syria's major cities. The truth is that the first priority of both ISIS and the government is to eradicate Syria's rebels, the ones fighting both of their totalitarian regimes.

ISIS is not the main threat.

The clear majority of civilians slaughtered in Syria are killed by Assad's bombs, artillery and torture chambers. Even ISIS' horrendous crimes pale in comparison to those of the Arab world's most brutal military dictatorship, which has turned Syria into the worst humanitarian crisis in decades.

The Syrian regime has largely allowed ISIS to prosper, in order to justify its continued grip on power to the international community. So long as Europe and the US fail to understand this, and so long as we neglect our pledge to genuinely support Syria's rebels against Assad and ISIS alike, they will view us as complicit in their massacre. In the meantime, it will be radical voices from both sides that call the shots; not Western democracies.

There can be no political solution without supporting the rebels

So long as the rebels are weak, as they were during the Geneva talks, Assad has no incentive to negotiate. Arms and money have been flowing to ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, two hard-line groups with little else in common; but other rebel groups receive nothing. Like all opposition groups in Syria today, they are Islamists: but in their treatment of civilians and minorities, they bear no resemblance to ISIS. Ridiculous as it may seem, the only military support they have received so far is uniforms and phones.

Once there is an alternative to ISIS and Al Nusra, their combatants will return to the rebels. When Selim Idriss, the Chief of Staff of the Free Syrian Army, was promised weapons by European countries, his troops' morale was high; but once it became clear that Europe had changed its mind and would do nothing, many of his battalions deserted for more radical groups like Al Nusra.

Securing the rebels means securing aid, safe access for NGOs and for journalists; more media means more fact-checking on the ground, the ability to counter false rumours, and therefore the opportunity for more informed decision-making for the outside world. In the absence of journalists and humanitarian aid, the Syrian situation will continue to deteriorate. If Assad is forced to negotiate, there will be hope for a political settlement; otherwise, the bloodshed will continue indefinitely.

The overwhelming call on the ground, Jarah tells me, is for Europe to help the rebels. We must send a message of hope to the Syrian people: that we will not let them down. 

We must support the few remaining democratic voices in Syria before we lose them.