The Key to Defeating ISIS is Clear Steps to End Assad's Reign of Terror



John Davenport

Fordham University


With all the talk about a "broad coalition" to defeat the Sunni terror group Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and how to prevent them from recruiting youth from Western nations, our leaders constantly miss the main point: the only way to win allegiance from leaders in Sunni nations of the Middle East and youth from Sunni families is to prove that we will support their brethren in Syria against Assad, whose regime has slaughtered over 200,000 Sunnis in the last four years (based on information from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; of course up to 100,000 Shi'a have also been killed). This may sound paradoxical, because Assad is technically at war with ISIS for control of eastern Syria. But the new war depends almost entirely on winning the hearts of Sunni people in Iraq, Syria, and the wider region away from ISIS and towards a moderate alternative. That alternative is what western leaders need to coordinate. Otherwise we cannot expect Sunni-majority nations like Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to do their utmost against a terror group founded by Sunni fundamentalists to which radicalized Sunnis are flocking mainly because it promised to resist Assad (and Assad's Shi'a backers in Iran and southeast Iraq). The war against ISIS daily becomes more sectarian, with troops from Iran joining Shi'a militias, which have largely become the "Iraqi army" as it pushes north from Baghdad towards Mosul.


We need not only Jordan but also Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar to join our air assault on ISIS. But they are hesitating because they fear that when ISIS falls, it will simply strengthen Assad's Shi'a regime in Syria and the Shi'a-dominated government of Iraq. These Sunni-majority nations will not fully commit to our coalition until they see that NATO allies have a clear plan to build strong Sunni-controlled areas in both Syria and Iraq -- perhaps even with regional semi-autonomy for such areas. If all we care about is defeating IS, then from their viewpoint, we just do not get it. We have supported a semi-independent Kurdistan; now we need to do the same for Sunnis. The goal should be a political solution in which Sunni peoples in both Syria and Iraq can live with security free from oppression without having to turn to extremists bent on killing everyone who does not share their utterly distorted version of Islam. But neither Assad nor his allies in Iran will accept that while they are willing on the battlefield.


Our commentators and news analysts constantly miss this crucial piece of the puzzle, even though our allies in Turkey and the Free Syrian Army (moderate Sunnis) keep telling us that we cannot win against ISIS while ignoring Assad's reign of terror. Our politicians agonize over why young Sunni men from western nations in Europe and even North America who are brought up in democratic nations would want to join such a barbaric group -- as if they have simply forgotten the mass atrocities by Assad (backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah) that have driven more than three million Syrians into refugee camps outside Syria (of whom perhaps 2/3 are Sunni). Sunni immigrant communities across Europe have not forgotten the thousands of Sunni people in Syria who have died (some slowly, over many days) under apartment buildings bombed by Assad's air force, or shot by Assad's snipers while trying to go shopping, or when trying to bury their dead. The extreme outrages practiced on Sunnis in Syria -- such as families burned alive in homes by Hezbollah, barrel bombs dropped on residential areas, chemical weapons attacks -- move young Sunnis to join the only force they see capable of fighting back, which is ISIS. We need to give them a better alternative.


But our leaders have become passive and directionless. They have waited so long to arm the Free Syrian Army that it is too weakened to act as our main proxy now. And we cannot continue to leave Kurdish forces unsupported on the ground in Syria (and barely aided in Iraq by fragmented Shi'a militias that only care about protecting Shi'a areas). We need ground forces to surround and destroy ISIS. Turkey could do this just by sending two divisions south just 150 miles towards Aleppo and Raqqa, it could destroy the center of ISIS power in a matter of days. With a second front opened, Kurdish forces pressing west could retake Mosul. But Turkey will never do this except as part of a larger NATO force that authorizes an invasion of Syria and also aims to remove Assad.


Yet with war-weariness in western nations, how can we ever hope to raise European and US ground forces for such a mission? If our leaders had any creativity left, they would already have realized how to beat ISIS at its own game: create a new volunteer force specifically for this mission to destroy ISIS, end Assad's reign, and restore decent order to both Syria and western Iraq. We already have westerners joining the Kurds to fight ISIS. Many of the young men (and a few women) who might go to ISIS would instead join this new humanitarian army, along with many of their peers who are not Islamic but who share the just passion to rid of us of ISIS and Assad. Within weeks, we would have over a hundred-thousand volunteers train, equip, and transport; it would become the cause celebre of our time.  Like the International Brigade against Franco, idealists from across the world would come to join -- even from Japan and Germany, no doubt to Merkel's distress. The remnants of the Free Syrian Army could join them on the field, along with Kurdish forces, and the Turkish army if this alliance proved sufficient to motivate Turkish leaders. Once they surrounded and mopped up ISIS, this force should turn on Assad (supported by NATO air power to stop Assad's air force) to bring about regime change in Syria, and set up a new order in which Sunni and Shi'a peoples can once against co-exist. If you want to integrate Islamic immigrants in Europe, this would do it: channel their righteous anger in a productive direction and show them that many non-Muslim Europeans and Americans stand with them.

With such force against Assad, a real negotiation could finally take place to create a new government in Syria. We could finally negotiate from a position of strength, rather than following Merkel and Obama's advice to negotiate with a tyrant who knows we are presently holding no cards (an utterly embarrasing travesty). Ideally such negotiations could be broadened to include all regional interests groups, in hopes of establishing a new majority-Sunni nation (call it "Levant" if you like) out of portions of eastern and northern Syria, along with north-west Iraq. Syria and Iraq should become smaller to make way for a state that would assure Sunni tribes of self-governance and security, freeing them from the need to turn to ISIS and similar militias. Kurdistan should also be established out of northeast Iraq and hopefully small parts of southeastern Turkey. This is the kind of negotiated settlement that could actually provide long-term stability. But it cannot happen without serious military force behind it.


Of course, such an international humanitarian brigade and plan for the Levant would certainly upset leaders of some other nations, namely Russia and Iran. Russia is now our enemy again, and Iran remains our enemy until they give up their nuclear weapons program. We need more leverage over both these corrupt regimes, and weakening them would support our allies, Ukraine and Israel. What are we waiting for?

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