Ghavri: Let Russia Fight the Islamic State

by Anmol Ghavri | 10/6/15 6:30pm

To say that Syria’s civil war has been absolutely brutal is an understatement. With a death toll of over 250,000 people in addition to a refugee crisis, the Syrian civil war has devastated the region and fueled instability. The U.S. has explored ways to provide aid to the Free Syrian Army in its fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but various factors, including the presence of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, have complicated American involvement and the F.S.A.’s ability to fight. The Islamic State’s presence in the country has made a terrible situation even worse — the terrorist group is murdering people of all faiths in cold blood and enslaving women and Westerners. The Islamic State’s defeat would be a positive step in resolving the civil war and refugee crisis in Syria.

Russia — a long-time ally of the Assad family — recently announced that it would escalate its involvement in fighting the Islamic State and other terrorists in Syria through airstrikes. The West sees this escalation as Vladimir Putin shoring up Assad’s government by targeting the F.S.A. rebels. Over the past week, the Obama administration and the State Department have been scrambling to find a way to respond to the Kremlin’s initiative.

Washington has been pursuing the joint objective of both removing Bashar al-Assad from power in Damascus and fighting the Islamic State. These goals are incredibly difficult to pursue simultaneously, as the presence of the Assad regime is one of the factors preventing an all-out takeover of Syria by the Islamic State — as the case of Saddam Hussein reminds us, oftentimes a brutal dictator is the only thing keeping a country together. Though supporting Russian involvement in fighting the Islamic State has its benefits and drawbacks, given the difficulty in pursuing a complex dual policy in the region, the former outweighs the latter.

The U.S. objective of defeating the Islamic State is of greater importance than regime transition in Syria — although removing Assad is important, doing so first requires defeating the Islamic State, which controls much of the land in Syria’s eastern territory. Thus, the U.S. should allow Russia to fight the Islamic State while ensuring that the F.S.A. stays out of their crosshairs. Additionally, the U.S. should wait to pursue regime transition until the Islamic State is defeated. The long-term goal of the U.S. should remain removing Assad from power, but there is a clear policy tradeoff involved in fighting both Assad and the Islamic State at the same time.

If the Obama administration pursued the removal of the Assad family from power as a primary policy objective and succeeded, instability would follow. The F.S.A. rebels currently have no government set up to transition to rule, giving the Islamic State the opportunity to expand and take more territory. If the U.S. was to place the defeat of the Islamic State at the forefront of their policy in the region while putting a hold on regime transition, it is true that Assad would have one less enemy to worry about — but so would the F.S.A. The Islamic State would eventually be contained and extinguished through Russian and Syrian collaboration — in addition to the continuation of U.S. airstikes — leaving Assad’s opposition more time to organize politically and militarily.

Although Russia seeks to bolster Assad’s regime, their current escalation and realization of the situation on the ground may give Putin a better perspective on the necessity of political transition. The Kremlin has recently affirmed its belief that the F.S.A. is not a terrorist group. Once the Islamic State is defeated, there is a legitimate possibility that Putin will allow the F.S.A. and the Assad regime to fight it out without his intervention. Of course, there is no guarantee of this happening — but without the defeat of the Islamic State, a political transition in Syria cannot occur.

Let Putin and Assad collaborate on defeating the Islamic State, the single most destabilizing group in the Middle East. The Obama administration should make it absolutely clear that there will be no tolerance for the targeting of the F.S.A. in the Kremlin’s airstrikes. Washington should focus on collaborating with Assad’s opposition and Free Syrian rebels on developing a plan for governance once Assad is removed from power, and providing intelligence on Moscow’s operations to ensure that the F.S.A. does not get caught up in Russia’s airstrikes — and then, maybe, this civil war could finally end.