Assad and the myth of the lesser evil

Assad has used chemical weapons and laid waste to entire neighbourhoods and regions with barrel bombs. However, in the West, fears of what ISIS Islamists could achieve loom so large that Syria's dictator continues to be seen as a smaller part of the problem. By Bente Scheller

By Bente Scheller

The rapid victories of the extremist group ISIS ("Islamic State in Iraq and Syria") have fuelled the international community's biggest fears about the Arab Spring turning into a jihadist nightmare. Given ISIS' capture of Syrian border crossings, followed by the Kurdish government in northern Iraq pushing through their demands with Iraq's central government, there are increased fears that a power reshuffle is underway in the Middle East - with unforeseeable consequences.

Along with Iraq, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have said action absolutely must be taken in light of this threat. Bashar al-Assad is the only one holding back, even though at first glance it would appear that he has a clear interest in putting a stop to these developments. Large swathes of Syria are no longer under his regime's control. And if Assad himself is to be believed, he has been engaged in a fight against terrorism since March 2011. As such, one would imagine that ISIS' recent success would mean Assad was in it up to his neck. After all, the group is considered too radical even for al-Qaida.

However, as caricatures of the Syrian president often emphasise, his neck is extremely long. The president still does not see ISIS as an immediate threat because its manoeuvres in Syria have scarcely touched the regions under the control of the regime.

Einheiten der ISIS in Raqqa; Foto: picture-alliance/AP Photo
In der Hand der Extremisten: ISIS hat inzwischen die Ausrufung ihres Kalifats in Teilen Syriens und des Iraks gefeiert. Per Twitter wurden am 29.06. unter anderem Bilder von einer Parade in der nordsyrischen Provinz Raqqa veröffentlicht.

Waiting and killing

All the Syrian territory ISIS has conquered has been taken from other rebels and not from the regime. The border with Iraq lies far from Damascus, and that's the only part of the country Assad is clinging to with all his might. He's employing what has always proven the best strategy for him: waiting it out, while also continuing with his bombardment of civilians and rebel groups.

Although many newspapers ran headlines last week announcing that the Syrian army had bombed ISIS positions for the first time, most commentators did not feel prompted by this to ask what the regime had been doing up until now. The emphasis was not on the bombing being conducted "for the first time." Instead, the news supported the general perception of Assad as a bitter opponent of the extremists.

But the regime's bombings were primarily symbolic in nature. In Raqqa, the only provincial Syrian capital in which ISIS is the sole power, the army didn't hit ISIS' easily identifiable headquarters. This location was formerly the seat of government in Raqqa, so the army should have been more than familiar with its coordinates. Instead, the strikes occurred nearby.

The air attacks praised by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were made on Iraqi territory, including at the market square of the border town of Qaim - not on Syrian ground. Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Safir reports that Assad's attacks in Iraq served to prevent ISIS' sphere of influence from extending towards Jordan.

The conflict as an international threat

That raises the question of why the Syrian regime is only waging a half-hearted and sporadic fight against Islamist extremists, particularly on its own turf. Part of the answer is that Assad sees his position being strengthened. Ever since the beginning of the revolution, his regime has put a lot of effort into portraying the conflict not just as a national but an international threat.

US-Präsident Obama während einer Pressekonferenz zur Lage im Irak; Foto: Reuters
Politik der Ratlosigkeit: Zweieinhalb Jahre, nachdem US-Präsident Obama den letzten aus dem Irak heimkehrenden US-Soldaten begrüßte, zwingen ihn nun extremistische ISIS-TKämpfer zum Kurswechsel. Hunderte Soldaten sollen zurück in den Irak, um neuerliche US-Luftangriffe vorzubereiten.

The Syrian ruler continues to assert his own sovereignty, even blocking aid deliveries to the parts of the country he doesn't control. Yet he hasn't failed to conjure up gloomy scenarios for other states, perfectly aware that this plays well at international level, where human rights are increasingly subordinated to security issues.

Given the weak and divided opposition in Syrian civil society and the more moderate one within the military, this has resulted in the conflict increasingly being seen as a choice between Assad and the extremists.

Consequently, the current debate addresses little more than how ISIS can be driven back militarily. There is no discussion of the fact that the brutality employed in beating down civil society's resistance to a tyrant is what led to the formation of ISIS in the first place.

A number of other factors are also left out of the discussion. It ignores the fact that Assad's choice to give up Syria's northern border, in particular, was what made it possible for large numbers of foreign fighters to flood into the country. It ignores that fact that, in establishing his own militias, he forfeited the state's monopoly on the use of force. There's also little mention of that fact that the West's reluctance to put its weight behind the political opposition and bolster the Free Syrian Army at the right time opened up the field for extremist forces and their supporters.

The distortion of "secular v. Islamist"

Describing the conflict using ideological terminology - secular versus Islamist - distracts from Assad's savage realpolitik. And it obscures the fact that questions of power and resources are also at stake - that politics and not just security play a role. ISIS' strength doesn't stem from the fact that its ideology is so attractive to Syrians. On the contrary: even in religious and conservative areas the residents do not want to be subjected to the organisation's rigid rules and draconian conduct.

Zerstörtes Homs; Foto: Reuters/Omar Sanadiki
Assad hat nie Zweifel daran gelassen, dass es ihm in Wirklichkeit nicht um Syrien, sondern um sich selbst geht. Schon in den ersten Monaten der Revolution hinterließen seine Truppen an den Orten ihres Wütens immer wieder das Graffiti: "Assad oder wir brennen das Land nieder". Diese Losung hat er seither konsequent umgesetzt.

In the northern Syrian city of Jarablus, for example, a smoking ban was the straw that broke the camel's back and led local forces to start fighting against ISIS. The Islamist group's opposition to every other sort of pleasure, from fashionable clothing to watching football, is also against the interests of many Syrians, who regard these things as part of their everyday lives.

ISIS' brutal actions have bred intimidation. Essentially, the militant organisation has been able to recruit soldiers because, unlike other groups, it has no financial concerns. ISIS can pay salaries, distribute food and, in Raqqa, buy acceptance by providing electricity and taking on all the other usual functions of a state.

A patchwork in northern Syria

By contrast, that was never possible for either the Free Syrian Army or for the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul, because both oppositional groups lacked the funds that would have enabled them to take a similar course - not to mention the fact that the regime continued to make air strikes even in regions it had long since lost to the rebels. The sole purpose of this was to prevent state-like structures from forming there. That has turned northern Syria into a patchwork in which various local authorities have small areas of control.

Assad has never given any reason to doubt that he's not concerned about Syria, only about himself. Right at the start of the revolution, in the first few months, his troops would spray graffiti in the places targeted by their wrath that read: "Assad or we'll burn the country to the ground." This is indeed the approach he has consistently implemented ever since.

Assad has used chemical weapons, laid waste to entire neighbourhoods and regions with barrel bombs, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and driven millions more from the country. However, in the West, fears of what ISIS Islamists could achieve, coupled with the West's aversion to getting more involved in the conflict, mean that Syria's dictator continues to be seen as a smaller part of the problem. People are inclined to view Assad as the lesser of two evils.

Bente Scheller

Translated from the German by Greg Wiser

© 2014

Editor: Charlotte Collins/

Bente Scheller assumed leadership of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's office in Beirut in 2012. Previously, she headed the organisation's office in Afghanistan. Her book "The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game: Foreign Policy under the Assads" was published in February