This post first appeared on the Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog.
The United States government has repeatedly called for a regional coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In reality, such a coalition would be difficult to assemble and is unlikely to destroy the group. This is especially true in Syria, where ISIS can retreat and regroup at will, and where there is as yet no clear strategy for defeating the group. Only a local, Syrian coalition—ideally involving both Alawis and Sunnis, but not Assad—can defeat ISIS. Interesting new developments in Syria indicate that this arrangement is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
ISIS released a new video of its recent capture of the regime’s Tabqa airbase in Raqqa province. The graphic violence in it is nothing new. Rather, the video is significant because, while probably intended to demoralize regime supporters and attract recruits, the reaction of the regime’s social base is likely to be more complex. Such propaganda can have a potentially serious impact on the regime’s standing among Alawis, with important implications for US policy in Syria. It may present a chance to exploit Alawi unease with the regime, improving prospects for a gradual reconciliation between certain elements of the regime and opposition, and a joint Syrian effort to defeat ISIS.
A powerful theme of humiliation runs through the video: regime soldiers are shown fleeing the base in a panic, as ISIS fighters calmly pick them off. ISIS fighters parade the surviving regime soldiers in their underwear, herding them half-naked through the Syrian desert and then executing them. The massacre followed persistent reports in state media that ISIS was, in fact, losing the battle at Tabqa, and had no hope of overcoming the ‘unshakeable bravery and strength’ of regime forces.
The manner in which the regime lost Tabqa airbase highlights aspects of the regime unsettling to its supporters. While it is impossible to verify what exactly happened at the base, it appears that several senior officers were airlifted out before its capture, abandoning troops with orders to hold it at all costs. As shown in the video, panic ensued as disoriented Syrian soldiers tried running away from advancing ISIS fighters, only to be shot down as they fled.
The fall of and massacre at Tabqa, coming so soon after the regime’s loss to ISIS of other major outposts in Raqqa province, has apparently provoked considerable dissent among Alawis, whose support for the regime had previously appeared steadfast and unanimous. The regime reportedly detained a pro-government activist for publicly demanding that it release the names of dead or missing soldiers (to add to Alawi humiliation, ISIS eventually satisfied this demand). Syrian authorities arrested four other Alawis in the regime’s geographic heartland in the northwest for planning demonstrations against the defense minister. Rumors of troops executed for trying to defect or abandoning their posts in critical Hama province suggest further dissent within the armed forces after Tabqa. Bashar al-Assad’s cousin has publicly demanded that senior officials and staff responsible for losing Tabqa resign. In a further sign of internal tensions, Hafez Makhlouf, a cousin of Bashar al-Assad, was reportedly dismissed as leader of the regime’s Interior Branch in Damascus.
Of course, many of these reports are unverified and the regime is likely to be especially tight-lipped about embarrassing failures or Alawi dissent. However, the latest ISIS video—and others that will follow future ISIS victories against the regime—are likely to deepen regime supporters’ doubts about entrusting their fate to Assad. To be sure, these Syrians have not developed newfound sympathy for the rebels or their cause or for the suffering the regime has inflicted on their compatriots. Rather, many one-time Assad supporters may simply calculate that he is a losing bet, unable to secure their future and not worth dying to protect.
Should these attitudes spread, a new opportunity will emerge for a negotiated settlement to the war between the elements of the Alawi-led armed forces and non-Jihadi rebel groups. In any case, unless one party can completely eliminate the other—which seems unlikely—the civil war will eventually end in a political settlement of sorts. At present, Assad presents one especially formidable obstacle. Opposition sources report that many of them would negotiate an end to the war, should Assad and anyone remaining loyal to him be removed. Reportedly, some important actors in the Syrian military are increasingly open to such a solution.
To the degree that ISIS’ atrocities and propaganda sow doubts within the regime’s support base and highlight all Syrians’ converging interests in defeating ISIS, it presents an opportunity that the United States can and should aggressively exploit. It would require sustained US outreach to any officers of the Syrian armed forces who sense a need and opportunity to get rid of Assad, fight ISIS in earnest, and reach a political settlement with the opposition to end a war the regime cannot win.
It will admittedly take more than nascent doubts about Assad to encourage Alawis to break with him and reach out to non-jihadist opposition elements. Above all, a meaningful opposition—able to fight and negotiate on behalf of a broad segment of Syrians—would need to exist. The United States could help bring such an opposition about with an expanded and sustained US-led effort to train and equip a rebel army that can act as a national insurgency, effective negotiator, and guarantor that minorities will not be massacred by ISIS and its like.
Strange as it sounds, a significant number of Syrians (including Alawis) still believe in a Syria that exists independently from Assad and his immediate allies, that it is worth preserving, and that the country still has a national army worthy of the name. That may or may not be true, but it does make a political settlement without Assad a logical possibility. It is, to be sure, a more likely outcome than the opposition eliminating both the regime and ISIS at once, or than Assad and his corrupt, incompetent clique defeating either the opposition or ISIS. In spite of President Barack Obama’s repeated calls for a regional anti-ISIS coalition, the only potentially effective coalition against ISIS is in Syria itself.