February 3, 2015
For more than four years Syria has been embattled in a deadly civil war that many – including the U.S. – blame President Bashar al-Assad for starting and perpetuating. But now, in the same week that ISIS was ousted from Kobani – reports are surfacing that the U.S. government is softening its opposition to Assad. Indeed, in a Foreign Affairs interview, the controversial Syrian leader noted the cooperation between the two nations has had an impact on the war against ISIS, and spoke of the potential for future cooperation and support.
And while White House and State Department officials have denied a policy change to the media, actions speak louder than words. Therefore, it is time for Congress to step up and make sure that in the effort to stop ISIS, the U.S. does not aid and abet Assad. Because any proposed effort to address ISIS in Syria that does not acknowledge Assad ignores his role in contributing to regional instability and will only reinforce his efforts to cling to power in a country he has brutalized for more than four years.
For those of us who have watched this region for years, there is no question of who laid the groundwork for the resurgence of ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq: the Assad regime. The Syrian government’s brutal and divisive reign generated the security vacuum that has allowed terrorist groups to expand and exert so much influence on the region in such a short period of time.
The Assad regime’s role in the rise of ISIS aside, the U.S. should view the humanitarian crisis as reason enough to steer clear of cooperation with Syria. The cold, hard reality is that the Syrian government has killed 200,000 people and driven more than 3.8 million refugees out of the country, including 1.6 million to Turkey alone. U.S. support for Assad after four years of brutality toward his own people could set a dangerous precedent.
No one is saying that this is an easy situation, but it shouldn’t be a question of whether the U.S. addresses the brutal reign of ISIS or the state-sponsored terrorism of Assad. Such a decision calculus is short-sighted at best and counterproductive at worst. Rather, Congress should challenge the leadership in Washington to develop a comprehensive strategy to work with its allies in the region to tackle the entwined threats of the Syrian government and ISIS. The U.S. should recognize that empowering the moderate Syrian opposition goes hand in hand with quelling the spread the extremism in the Middle East.
On this front, the United States needs to find ways to build bridges to countries like Turkey who are directly impacted by the lawlessness in Syria and have a vested domestic interest in stability in the region. Turkey has done a lot, taking in millions of refugees, providing safe passage for Iraqis, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and the moderate Syrian opposition – who’ve already made inroads against ISIS – and arresting more suspected terrorists on international watch lists than ever before. But for the sake of its own national security, Turkey cannot risk taking an offensive against ISIS without the full support of the U.S. and its other allies. Already, Turkey regularly endures cross-border fire from ISIS and the Assad regime. If it were to more forcibly confront ISIS without a plan to fill the security vacuum left by the Syrian civil war, Turkey would risk retaliatory terrorist attacks. In this environment it is imperative that Congress push the United States to keep all options on the table and work with its allies to develop a comprehensive strategy that fights both ISIS and Assad to ensure long-term solutions to these thorny problems.
Danismaz is president of the Turkish Heritage Organization.