Almost precisely one year ago, the Obama administration was so enraged with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, whose campaign of terror in the Syrian civil war had killed thousands of civilians, including with chemical weapons, that President Obama was personally making the case for launching off-shore strikes against Assad. For a president who so assiduously avoids military conflict, it was a remarkable step for Obama to not only consider but aggressively advocate acts of war against Assad.
Not only did Obama never attack Assad, but he is now sending the American military and America’s allies to bomb Assad’s most powerful enemy, ISIS. The United States has completely switched sides in the Syrian civil war and is now indirectly aiding the Syrian government it was plotting to strike just a year ago.
That is a stunning reversal. And Assad can take full credit for it: this is a situation he has cultivated from the beginning. He has successfully manipulated the world’s most powerful country, which was bent on his destruction, into attacking his enemies instead.
The fact that America’s strikes against ISIS are good news for Assad has played out in the open in the awkward statements from American government officials insisting that they did not coordinate with Assad on the strikes. Indeed, there is no evidence that they did coordinate, but they wouldn’t have to: the US was very clear it would be flying missions against Assad’s enemies, so naturally Assad has allowed them to move over his airspace totally undisturbed. His government has even bragged (probably falsely, not that it matters) that Secretary of State John Kerry sent Assad a secret letter notifying him of the strikes, as if by way of asking permission.
Assad estimated, correctly, that the Americans would care far more about defeating potential terrorist threats to the United States than about stopping Assad from his slaughter of Syrian civilians. In the last two years, the Syrian government has focused on defeating the US-backed “moderate” rebels, while simultaneously ceding large stretches of the battlefield to jihadist groups, especially ISIS. The Syrian government largely refrained from bombing Raqqa, the province ISIS holds and where it has built its headquarters. ISIS seemed to understand the bargain and reciprocate, not fighting alongside Assad’s forces but also not challenging them too directly, focusing rather on seizing territory from other rebel groups.
At first, the war was not a war at all, but a one-sided slaughter by Assad’s troops against unarmed civilian protesters, a dynamic that Assad knew invited American-led intervention against him. Then it was a war between Assad’s loyalists and home-grown Syrian rebels, which posed the same risk. But by allowing extremist groups like ISIS to grow, as he focused on weakening moderate rebels, Assad created a conflict in which he was the lesser of two evils.
This strategy was not a secret; it was carried out in the open, as we all watched, and there is no mystery that Assad hoped to cultivate ISIS’s growth. This cartoon, by prominent Iranian artist Mana Neyestani, perfectly captures what Assad was trying to do:
What choice did Obama have? The more vicious and threatening that ISIS became, the more that the United States felt compelled to attack it — even if it means implicitly aiding Assad.
While the White House has repeatedly insisted that it is not helping Assad and will be arming moderate rebels to try to weaken him, the truth is that this is great news for the Syrian dictator. In just a year’s time, he managed to co-opt the most powerful military in the world, a military that was preparing to attack him, into attacking his enemies instead. The shrewd brilliance of this would be admirable, had it not been put toward such awful ends.