Assad Conundrum: Why Syria’s Dictator May Be ‘Too Big to Fail’

Assad Conundrum: Why Syria’s Dictator May Be ‘Too Big to Fail’
A Kurdish fighter walks through rubble in Kobani, Syria, Nov. 19, 2014 (AP photo by Jake Simkin).

U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS) only deals with half of the problem. That militant organization grew powerful in part because the Iraqi government led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was more interested in entrenching Shiite control than in building a stable, inclusive political system. This alienated Sunni Arabs and allowed the Iraqi military to decay through sectarianism and corruption. But IS was also born out of armed resistance to the parasitic dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In a very real sense, it took not one but two repressive, inept governments to spawn IS. Its ultimate defeat, then, requires addressing both of its sources.

Unfortunately the Obama strategy focuses almost exclusively on the Iraqi component. It prods Baghdad toward political reform and commits the United States to help revive the Iraqi security forces and arm militias fighting IS. That is all good. The strategy does not, however, explain what the U.S. intends to do about Assad. Because of this, no matter how many airstrikes the U.S. launches against IS or how many more American trainers show up, success will remain elusive.

Syrians understand this. As Anne Barnard wrote in The New York Times, they are appalled by America’s contradictory policy, concluding that the Obama administration is siding with Assad: “[B]y training United States firepower solely on the Islamic State it is aiding a president whose ouster is still, at least officially, an American goal.” This contradictory policy also weakens the coalition that the Obama administration has built to fight IS. Turkey, whose active participation is vital if IS is to be quashed, has refused to put much effort into it so long as Assad’s ouster is not considered as important as defeating the extremists. The Arab Gulf states, while further from the fight, feel the same way.

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