Syria: The Last Chance Saloon
The fall of Ramadi to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) troops last Sunday [May 17] was not a big deal. The city was deep inside ISIL-held territory, ISIL fighters had controlled 80 percent of it since March, and we already knew that the Iraqi army can’t fight. Even so, ISIL is not going to take much more of Iraq. What it doesn’t already hold is either Shia or just not Arab at all (Kurdistan), and that is not fertile ground for Sunni Arab fanatics.
The fall of Palmyra on Friday [May 23] was a very big deal, because it was clear evidence that the Syrian army’s morale is starting to crumble. It was doing quite well until last summer, even regaining ground from the insurgents, but the tide has now turned. After every defeat and retreat, it gives up more easily at the next stop. It may be too late already, but at best the Syrian regime is now in the Last Chance Saloon.
The Syrian army is very tired and short of manpower after four years of war. But what is really different is that insurgents are now united under two powerful groups rather than split into dozens of bickering fragments. Unfortunately, both of these groups are Islamist fanatics.
Al-Nusra had to fight very hard for İdlib, the northwestern provincial capital, in March, but ISIL met little resistance when it took over the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk in April. Palmyra and the adjacent gas fields, which the regime fought for months to defend last year, fell to ISIL this month after just four days.
It’s never possible to say when a hard-pressed army will actually collapse, but the Syrian army is now in this zone. If the Assad regime does go under, ISIL and al-Nusra will take over all of Syria. What happens next would be very ugly.
ISIL and al-Nusra are both “takfiri” groups who believe that Muslims who do not follow their own extreme version of Sunni Islam are “apostates,” not real Muslims, and that they deserve to be killed. Around one-fifth of Syria’s population is “apostate” by this definition – Alevis and other Shias – along with the Druze and Christian minorities. They are all at great risk.
True, al-Nusra has been less outspoken about its intentions than ISIL, but that is just a question of timing and tactics. The basic ideology is the same, and al-Nusra in power would be committed by its own religious beliefs to exactly the same murderous “cleansing” of the population. When religious fanatics tell you they intend to do something, it is wise to take them seriously.
An Islamist victory in Syria could entail the death of millions. It would also cause panic in the neighboring Arab countries, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Yet, no nearby Arab country will send troops into Syria to stop the looming disaster, because they cannot imagine fighting fellow Sunnis in Syria, however extreme their doctrine, in order to save the Shia regime of Bashar al-Assad.
You don’t get the choices you would like to have. You only get the choices that are on the table, even if you are the president of the world’s only superpower. At this point, Barack Obama has only two options: save the Syrian regime, or let it go under and live with the consequences.
It’s not even clear that he can save it. He cannot and should not put American troops on the ground in Syria, but he could provide military and economic aid to the Syrian regime – and, more importantly, put U.S. airpower at the service of the Syrian army.
Even that might not save Assad’s regime, but it would certainly help the morale of the army and the two-thirds of the population that still lives under his rule. With more weapons of better quality and U.S. air support, the Syrian army might be able to catch its breath and regain its balance. It would be a gamble and if Obama did that, he would be alienating two major allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But if he doesn’t do it, very bad things may follow.
U.S. planes are already bombing ISIL (and al-Nusra too, in practice) all over northern Syria, but they did not bomb ISIL troops attacking Palmyra. That was a deliberate decision, not an oversight, even though Palmyra would probably not have fallen if Obama had given the order.
The U.S. President didn’t do that because he is still stuck in the fantasyland of an American-trained “third force” that will defeat both ISIL and the Assad regime in a couple of years’ time. Saving the Syrian regime is a deeply unattractive choice, because it is a brutally repressive dictatorship. Its only redeeming virtues are that it is not genocidal and does not threaten all of the neighbors.
Obama may have as little as a couple of months to come to terms with reality and make a decision. Waiting until the Syrian regime is already falling to intervene is not a good option; decision time is now. His reluctance to decide is entirely understandable, but rescuing Assad is the least bad option.