After popular protests broke out in Syria against the ruling regime headed by Bashar Assad in 2011, supporters of the president adopted a catch-cry. The slogan was seen scrawled on walls where the government had taken harsh punitive action against opponents, and was heard chanted in counter-demonstrations: Assad Or We Burn The Country.
Four and a half years on, that threat has been made good. A brutal civil war once characterised by forces for and against the young dictator has morphed in to a existential sectarian battle between radical Sunni Islamists and their Shiite and Western adversaries. The country is approaching the status of failed state, with nine million people displaced, poverty and disease endemic and the economy in ruins. Islamists with the Islamic State militant group impose their animalistic rule over half of the country.
For four years, despite regular condemnations of his gross human rights violations, accusations of war crimes and demands for his removal, Assad has defied all squabbling attempts by a dysfunctional opposition and their US backers to form an alternative to his rule. ISIS moved in. The decapitating force of radical foreign jihadis with their anti-Western modus operandi have replaced the evil dictator as the baddest of the bad. And that puts the US in an awkward position.
US airstrikes alone cannot counter ISIS expansion, and Washington knows it. That's why it has been hunting around for a viable partner in Syria to combat the extremists. Plans to arm and train a moderate rebel Syrian army are still in their infancy, while alternative partnerships in the form of a proxy force made up of tribal elements or Kurdish forces are fraught.
Assad knows this. On cue, the Syrian government last week publicly condemned the ISIS killing of the Jordanian pilot and called on Jordanian authorities to work with it in the fight against ISIS. The Syrian foreign ministry called on Jordan, which is part of a US-led aerial campaign, 'to cooperate in the fight against terrorism represented by the organization Daesh and Nusra Front'.
US and European officials have repeatedly denied claims they are shifting their stance on Assad. The US has suggested the regime is part of the problem, even an incubator for ISIS. Yet tell-tale signs of a changing stance continue to emerge.
Secretary of State John Kerry's comments ahead of the latest round of peace talks were notably absent of demands for Assad to step down. Those talks, sponsored by staunch regime ally Russia, also saw reference to the formation of a pluralistic transition government dropped. This demand had been the foundation of previous talks based on the 2012 Geneva communique. In its place, a new initiative was floated to 'freeze' fighting in the north-western city of Aleppo, a plan echoing the 'local reconciliation' efforts that saw the Government rid the main cities of Homs, Hama and areas of Damascus of rebel elements and consolidate control of eastern corridor stretching from Damascus to Homs and northwards along the Lebanese border.
With Assad firmly in control of that strategic corridor, with unyielding support from Russia and Iran, and the US caught up in the fight against his adversaries, there is little incentive for Assad to pursue a transition that will ultimately result in his relinquishing power. The Russian talks, conducted without the participation of the US-backed opposition, concluded without any resolution; the regime was able to capitalise on its image as a willing partner for peace while Russia was able to use the fight against terror as leverage against the US.
Since the emergence of ISIS, the threat of returning jihadists has taken primacy over moral indignation against Assad. Some senior European diplomatic figures in Beirut have privately acknowledged that if the choice is whittled down to Assad or ISIS, then there is a greater willingness to engage with the regime and to a recognise that, for the time being, Assad will stay. Rumours abound that some countries, notably France, have been cooperating with the regime on an intelligence level for months as part of counter-terrorism efforts, while the Czech embassy is understood to be acting as a proxy channel for low-level communications after most European countries closed their diplomatic missions in Syria.
Formal re-engagement with the Syrian regime, however, remains a long way off. As one senior European embassy official conceded in May, 'It's hard to see the world siding with Bashar after destroying his own country...that's a hard sell.'
Such an embarrassing an apparently hypocritical turnaround would also have serious long term consequences for the US as it continues efforts to arm and train, from the ashes of the Free Syrian Army, a moderate rebel force capable of fighting ISIS. There is serious potential for blowback here. After all, this moderate force will be made up of the same rebels who, disillusioned after their calls for US and international military support in the fight against Assad went unanswered for years (prompting many FSA members to join the better armed and funded Islamist brigades), are now being called upon by the US to fight a proxy war on behalf of the Americans against Assad's main foe.
As the world rails against ISIS following its latest brutal executions of Japanese and Jordanian captives, broadcast in gory detail through a sensationalist propaganda campaign, Assad has quietly continued his slow-drip genocide with apparent impunity. Observers report that over 2000 regime air strikes — many using cheap, crude and imprecise barrel bomb devices banned under international law — killed 271 civilians and injured at least 1000 in January alone.
As the US slowly positions itself on the 'Assad or chaos' quotient, these figures are a stark reminder of the strange kind of stability the Syrian dictator presents.
Photo by Flickr user Beshr O.