It’s been a rough week for Islamic State’s make-believe caliphate.
Word on Friday was that the United States military had killed the terrorist group’s second-in-command. In Iraq, government forces inched closer to the crucial ISIS-controlled city of Mosul. And in Syria, regime troops entered Palmyra, which Islamic State captured last year.
Palmyra’s liberation has been months in the making. The Syrian government started bombing ISIS positions there last September, but the black flag continued to fly, as much of the government’s attention remained focused on other targets like Aleppo. Bashar al-Assad’s strategy from the beginning has been to destroy rebels from groups like the Free Syrian Army first, as they control territory adjacent to him and are backed by many Western countries, including the United States. The Russian campaign in Syria, allegedly to fight terrorism, focused most of its firepower on the “moderate” rebels rather than ISIS.
This led many critics to assert that Assad was tolerating Islamic State and even working in conjunction with it. The linchpin of their claims is an alleged amnesty granted by Assad to 260 prisoners, many of whom were believed to be Islamists—a seeming attempt to bolster the jihadists and discredit the rebellion. If true, it was a cunning and destructive move by Assad, who’s always been good at self-preservation.
Still, the notion that Assad was integral to ISIS’s creation simply doesn’t add up. The real culprits are Al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State’s predecessor, and the wave of foreign fighters that’s swamped Syria since the civil war began, a hefty number of whom come from Sunni states like Turkey, Jordan and, especially, Saudi Arabia. A poll from 2014 found that Saudis are the most receptive to Islamic State propaganda, and no wonder. The Saudi royal family has been incubating and manipulating extremist Wahhabist Islam for decades, now in an effort to counter Iranian power. This, more than anything else, planted the seeds for ISIS’s barbarism.
So while Assad has waged a ferocious and often indiscriminate war, there are forces in the Middle East far more sinister than his regime. Palmyra, once a crossroads of the ancient world, is a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s filled with ruins. Assad protected them; ISIS dynamited them, including the iconic Baalshamin Temple. There’s a pattern here: think of the Taliban exploding 1,700-year-old Buddhist statues or Saudi Wahhabists destroying the tomb of Hussein—Muhammad’s grandson and one of the holiest figures in the Shiite religion—back in the early nineteenth century.
So goes the Middle East. Some of our antagonists there believe in a degree of civilization; others are outright vandals. The United States is primarily at war with the latter. The reason so many of us were skeptical about arming the Syrian rebels back in 2013 is that we remembered what happened in Iraq, watched the extremists flooding over the borders and worried that a post-Assad Syria would end up a less stable and more dangerous place than an Assadist Syria. The rise of Islamic State confirmed our worst fears.
So it’s difficult not to join the UN in cheering the impending liberation of Palmyra, even if it’s being achieved by a devious dictatorship. Syria right now is a place of bad and worse choices, not easy binaries. Any peace there will come not through military victory, but through ongoing negotiations between the regime and the opposition in Geneva, nursed along by the United States and Russia. A political solution could result in a unity government or a partition of Syria. It could also (hopefully) phase out Assad himself. But the regime cannot be discounted or excluded from the diplomatic calculus, seeing as it still governs much of the country, and is regarded as the only legitimate seat of power by Alawites and many other western Syrians.
The West’s plan to win the war against Assad has proven to be folly. Now its concern should be to win the peace—and then take the fight to Islamic State where it belongs.
Matt Purple is a fellow at the American Security Initiative Foundation and deputy editor for Rare Politics.
Image: Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann