I think at this point we’re all aware of some of the problems the U.S. and several other countries have with Syria. After the country’s Civil War began, President Bashar al-Assad’s military was repeatedly accused of indiscriminately killing civilians. For those who haven’t been following the story, Syrian rebel groups have been fighting against Assad’s authoritarian regime, and Assad has responded by firing on, using chemical weapons, and even dropping bombs on it’s own citizens. These “barrel bombs” are the most recent thing that’s got everyone riled up. The United Nations has even held a conference to specifically address the developing humanitarian crisis, which in January alone has resulted in 271 civilian casualties and over 1000 injuries.
Assad, however, continues to deny any government involvement in these bombings, despite the fact that these events are well-documented: there are literally videos of the Syrian military pushing these bombs out of helicopters and onto civilian populations. In a rare interview with BBC news on Tuesday morning, President Assad reiterated, “We have bombs, missiles and bullets… There is [are] no barrel bombs, we don’t have barrels.” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was quick to condemn these remarks, saying, “Assad is deluded or lying when he says his military are not murdering hundreds of innocent civilians with the use of barrel bombs.”
To be fair, Syria isn’t intentionally targeting civilians. As Syrian activist and journalist Ibrahim as-Assil explained at the a UN conference this past May, the problem is more that these bombs are inaccurate, not that the regime has malicious intent. However, the moral conflict arises when the government refuses to acknowledge that they need to find another way to combat the rebels, which doesn’t involve endangering civilians. To make a long story short, the U.S. and several other countries have cut Syria off, so long as its government’s disregard for human life continues.
Recently though, things have been shaken up again in the Middle East. And it stems from the rise of ISIS.
To clear up any preconceptions you might have about Syria’s connection with ISIS, ISIS is not a Syrian rebel group. It is a transnational organization which was around for years before the start of the Syrian civil war. While ISIS does not support Syria’s secular government, they have managed to benefit from the conflict within the country. It allowed ISIS to get battlefield experience, and attracted a ton of financial support from Gulf states and private donors looking to oust Assad. Throughout the turmoil they have also attained a crucial safe haven in eastern Syria. ISIS also absorbed a lot of recruits from Syrian rebel groups, which means that arming Syrian rebels, as some have suggested, probably would not have helped dismantle ISIS (although according to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, it may have been essential to taking out Assad. Either way, arming them now would be too little, too late at this point.).
While countries like Jordan and the U.S. previously refused to work with Assad, the emergence of ISIS has reshuffled the deck, and many governments are reconsidering. However, the Syrian government has so far refused to cooperate, and as a result many of said countries are taking military action without Assad’s permission. The U.S., in particular, has become very active in the region; as of December 2014, it has carried 1371 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq where ISIS has been hiding out. While communication is still open with Iraq, Syrians apparently have very little to go off of. In fact, the Syrian regime is getting most of it’s information now from “Iraq and other countries.” When questioned about how there could be no communication between Syria and the U.S. about air strikes, and still be no aircraft collisions, Assad explained, “Sometimes, they [the Americans] convey a message, a general message, but there’s nothing tactical,” he added vaguely: “There is no dialogue. There’s, let’s say, information, but not dialogue.”
Here’s what Assad said, more specifically, about the U.S.: “They don’t talk to anyone, unless it is puppet. And they easily trample over international law, which is about our sovereignty now. So they don’t talk to us, we don’t talk to them.”
So perhaps the U.S. isn’t the only party refusing to communicate. But maybe we’re right right to be cautious around Syria when in comes to ISIS. Because in a bizarre way, the rise of the terrorist organization has really benefitted Assad. By the “virtue” of the misconception that ISIS is a Syrian rebel group, Assad’s supporters have become increasingly more convinced that the rebels need to be stopped at all costs. Assad has also been focussing most of his military on moderate groups of rebels, the ones most against ISIS, which leaves ISIS temporarily unscathed. These same moderate rebels have also been fighting against ISIS, dividing the opposition even further.
So while ISIS and Syria really do hate each other, they seem to have made an implicit deal: ISIS gets a temporary free ride in some parts of Syria, and Assad gets to weaken his other opponents. They both benefit from the current status quo.
With all this information coming to light, I don’t believe anyone can trust the Syrian government, and I don’t have any qualms about our military not being totally upfront about its plans with them. What do you readers think? Do we owe it to Syria to let them in on the airstrikes landing in their country, or should we keep them in the international time-out corner?
BBC News. Assad Says Syria is Informed on Anti-IS Air Campaign. BBC World News. Feb. 10, 2015.
Beauchamp, Zach. The 9 Biggest Myths About ISIS. Vox. Oct. 1, 2014.
Chappel, Bill. Syria Has Learned About Airstrikes On ISIS Via ‘Iraq And Other Countries.’ NPR. Feb. 10, 2015.
Dearden, Lizzie. Syrian Government Forces Killing Hundreds of Civilians in Air Strikes as World Watches ISIS. The Independent. Feb. 4, 2015.
United Nations. Barrel Bombs: Syria’s Indiscriminate Killers. UN Web TV. May 14, 2014.
US News. Should Obama Have Armed Syrian Rebels Sooner? US News Debate Club.
Winsor, Morgan. US Airstrikes Targeting ISIS Cost Over $1 Billion, Pentagon Says. International Business Times. Dec. 20, 2014.
Zirulnick, Ariel. Syrian 101: 4 Attributes of Assad’s Authoritarian Regime. The Christian Science Monitor. Apr. 29, 2011.