The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria’s lightning offensive of Iraq last week was a serious cause of alarm. The speed by which ISIS took over major Iraqi cities revealed the extent of the training its members have received, the numbers it commands and the resources at its disposal. And yet, its campaign may offer the first glimmer of hope for the Syrian conflict since the situation in Syria was hijacked by radicals.
For over a year ISIS has asserted its control over most of eastern Syria, while maintaining a strong presence in the north. It has asserted itself as a kingmaker in the Syrian conflict. Facing little or no resistance, the success of its operation appears imminent. With steady supplies of resources and arms – mostly emanating from Iraq, where the group was initially established – ISIS has been able to consolidate its strength.
As a consequence, other, more moderate, groups that lacked support and sophisticated weapons were quickly marginalized. The more moderate elements of the Syrian revolution found themselves fighting on two fronts.
On the one hand, and in a bid to force the West to accept a fait accompli where it would have to choose between the Syrian regime or radical Islamists, President Bashar Assad waged a war against moderates while sparing ISIS and other similar groups. On the other hand, ISIS sought to impose its rule over regions formerly controlled by rebels. It battered moderate groups, imposed its perverse and violent interpretation of Islamic norms and sought to repress all those that opposed it.
Until recently, ISIS remained entrenched in regions of Syria under its direct control. While its operations have covered Iraq, its focus for the past two years has been Syria. Ideologically, the uprising against Assad’s Alawite regime gave the group legitimacy among the regime’s radical Sunni foes. With the image of radical groups tarnished in Iraq following the killings of thousands of innocent Shiite civilians after the American invasion, the ISIS intervention in Syria could not have been better chosen. The brutality of the Assad regime constituted a veritable justification for war, attracting many sympathizers.
Notwithstanding the seemingly formidable allure of its accomplishments, ISIS is scattered. Its combatants are spread across territories spanning thousands of kilometers. The cities it has taken over have been abandoned by those who used to run them. With administrators, policemen and public servants all fleeing for fear of reprisals, ISIS is now forced to administer the cities it controls, or face possible rebellions of its own. Such a predicament considerably constrains its capabilities.
The context of uncertainty concerning effective and prolonged ISIS control over vast territories offers hope for Syria. With most of its operatives spread across Iraq, ISIS is vulnerable in Syria. This window of opportunity should not be ignored. Moderate groups, with the help of their Western allies, could take advantage of this situation to regain lost territory and repel the extremists. This situation could also allow moderate Syrian rebels to regroup and regain strategic routes and cities, tipping the balance of power in that ravaged country.
Some argue that such a configuration would effectively transform moderate rebels into Western proxies to fight off the terrorist threat, instead of focusing on the primary objective – that of removing Assad from power. Notwithstanding these risks, which are real, Assad’s fall remains unrealistic within the current configuration. The shadow of ISIS is prevalent and the revolution cannot exist so long as the extremist threat is maintained. Only with the elimination of ISIS can the Syrian revolution be salvaged. Until then, it is unlikely that moderate rebels will regain their former strength and legitimacy.
The situation does not mean accepting Assad as the lesser of two evils. However, getting rid of ISIS may very well simplify the task of bringing an end to Assad rule.
Tamer Mallat is the editor-in-chief of ArabsThink.com and a law student at Sciences-Po in Paris, where he is president of the Arab World association. He tweets @tmallat. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.