Amid international condemnation of the Paris attacks and expressions of solidarity with France – including from Syrian rebel groups (but with the exception of al-Qaida’s Nusra Front) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s reaction was less than consolatory. He told a visiting French delegation that their country’s support of Syrian opposition groups was to blame for the attack by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Assad’s statement is an inadvertent acknowledgement that these rebel groups – not his government – are ISIS’s primary opponents in Syria. He has no reason to express sorrow over the Paris attacks because he benefits from them.
Since Friday’s violence in Paris, France and Russia have been coordinating their stepped-up airstrikes in Syria, with French President Francois Hollande calling for the “bringing together of all those who can realistically fight against this terrorist army in a large and unique coalition.”
The U.S. has also expressed its willingness to cooperate with Moscow. Both Paris and Washington had previously been reluctant to form a broader coalition with Russia because of Moscow’s insistence that it include Assad. However, Russia has since reiterated its demand.
“I hope the change in the position of our Western colleagues, which has unfortunately only come about as the result of terrible acts of terror, will spread to other Western partners,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “The fate of Assad,” he said, should be “put to one side.”
“It is simply unacceptable to put forward any preconditions in order to unite in the battle against [ISIS],” Lavrov added.
Assad has echoed Russia’s stance, telling a French magazine: “You have to first change policy … to be part of an alliance that joins countries only fighting terrorism and not supporting them.” Having been shunned as a potential coalition partner, he now has the demeanor of someone calling the shots on the coalition’s makeup and goals.
Assad can now sit more comfortably amid increased U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s renewed insistence on gaining parliamentary approval for airstrikes against the group and Russia’s targeting of Syrian rebels opposed to both ISIS and the government. Meanwhile, no foreign power is directly targeting his troops or allied forces.
The Paris attacks have galvanized calls for cooperation with the Assad government as a means of defeating ISIS, not just from Assad’s allies, but from those who see him as the lesser of two evils. The latest such calls came on Wednesday from Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, and Britain’s former chief of the defence staff General David Richards.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, last week reiterated why this viewpoint is so flawed: “By far the largest cause of Syrian civilian deaths – and the resulting flight of refugees – is the Assad government’s decision to treat as military targets the civilians and civilian institutions in areas seized by the opposition.”
In the eyes of Assad and his allies, every ISIS atrocity bolsters their case that Assad is indispensable, because those they are convincing continually overlook the central role his government has played in the group’s rise and expansion in Syria. Since ISIS’s brutality is key to Assad’s rehabilitation, there is no reason for him to wish for an end to their bloodlust, certainly not after the fallout of the Paris attacks.
Paris overshadows Vienna
The atrocity has overshadowed the second round of talks in Vienna on how to end the Syrian conflict, which took place the following day. There was agreement on a ceasefire, the launching of negotiations between the government and opposition by January, a transitional government in six months and elections in 18 months. All this was decided without Syrian participation, as was the case with the first round of talks in Vienna.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who attended the talks, was right to describe the agreement as “utopian.” First, a ceasefire is predicated on adherence by forces that have never been included in the “peace process,” and thus have no reason to play ball. Second, as with every previous conference, the fate of Assad was left undecided – as the biggest and most persistent sticking point, this negates everything else agreed.
In fact, remarks by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad just days after the first round of talks in Vienna made the second round – indeed any future talks – utterly pointless. “We are not at all talking about what is called a transitional period,” he said in Iran. “There is no alternative to the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad.”
This belligerence was simply a clear verbalization of the government’s negotiating stance from the outset: participating in talks that are supposed to discuss a transition, but insisting on focusing on other issues so that it does not have genuinely to address a transition in the first place.
Elections? Defeat terrorism first, says Assad, who uses the term for all of his armed opponents – but not, of course, for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his own forces. This precondition, amid a conflict that is only intensifying, effectively leaves him as president for as long as he likes, ruling over a country he has destroyed for his own self-preservation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
Top image: A man burns a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, during a demonstration in the outskirts of Idlib, northern Syria, on Sunday Feb. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)