THE BLOG

A Strategy for Degrading and Defeating ISIS Must include the Overthrow of Syria's Assad

02/10/2014 15:35 BST | Updated 02/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Prime Minister Cameron was right to rule out any co-operation with Assad in the fight against ISIS. He was also right not to seek Parliament's support for possible action in Syria.

In the House of Lords, former Chief of the General Staff Lord Dannatt warned that "attacking ISIL in Iraq but not in Syria is dealing with half the problem".

"How the hell can you win the war when most of your enemy can end up in a country you can't get involved in?" Another former ex-army Chief, Lord Richards, was quoted in The Sunday Times. "Islamic State cannot be defeated by air-strikes alone and boots on the ground are needed to take them on."

But the UK position's is problematic. Having secured a majority in favour of air-strikes in Iraq, David Cameron has indicated that there is "a strong case" for extending air-strikes against what he calls "psychopathic" ISIS from Iraq into Syria. The UK is prepared to intervene to avert a humanitarian catastrophe without prior Parliamentary approval. Ed Miliband, who thwarted action against Assad last year, is again demanding a UN Security Council Resolution to validate any military action. His disingenuousness is transparent. The Russian veto would inevitably scupper any proposed Resolution, and he knows it.

David Blair, in a scathing article in the Daily Telegraph 25th Sept 14, dissects the contradictions of Miliband's stance: "It appears that Ed Miliband really does think that bombing targets in Syria might be illegal. He really is committed to the argument that bombing Syria is right when the planes are American, but wrong if they are British".

There has been too much talk about boots on the grounds. Iraq has the boots and the weapons, but lacks the expertise and the motivation. In Northern Iraq the Peshmerga (the Kurdish fighters in Kurdistan) is engaging ISIS with some success, but they are hampered by a scarcity of modern weapons.

In Syria, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other moderate rebels groups are experienced, motivated and battle-hardened. They have been battling Assad's army, Hezbollah, Iraqi and Iranian militias for over three years. They have been fighting ISIS at least since April 2013. But they lack weapons and ammunition. Until recently they have been receiving non-lethal aid from the West. If any training is required, it should be specifically weapons-training, on unfamiliar hardware.

There may be a case for deploying Special Forces to seek out ISIS terrorists, but no large scale deployment of US and British troops would be necessary or effective. Should the need arise, Saudi and Jordanian troops must be involved.

Hard choices, difficult decisions, unpalatable options and exceptional measures: no matter what you call them, they must include a strategy for dealing with the root cause of the problems. Assad's regime has been sponsoring al Qaeda terrorists since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. The regime facilitated the entry of Jihadists and al Qaeda terrorists into Iraq to kill American and British soldiers, as well as Iraqis.

With the help of Iran, Damascus has aided and abetted the rise of ISIS. Mounting and compelling evidence implicates Damascus and Tehran in collusion with ISIS.

Writing in Al-Arabiya recently, Brooklyn Middleton said: "To guarantee success against ISIS, the lukewarm approach to dealing with the Syrian opposition must finally come to an end. Moreover, as strikes continue against Islamist factions, serious efforts must also be made to degrade the Syrian regime - equally as evil and as much as a security threat as ISIS."

We are all aware that the Assad regime committed unspeakable crimes against its own people, colluding with ISIS since early 2013. Ample evidence shows that the Assad regime never targeted ISIS, but invariably attacked the Free Syrian Army, the only moderate rebel group in Syria fighting ISIS. When ISIS seized oil wells the regime was its first customer, providing funding and support.

On the official level the U.S is determined to bypass Damascus in defeating ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly ruled out any alliance with the Syrian regime, and called for the removal of Assad: "the right to lead a country does not come from torture, nor barrel bombs, nor Scud missiles."

Despite such brave pronouncements, no practical steps have been taken to translate this into an action plan.

The regime is reaping the benefits of the air-strikes against ISIS and al-Nusra front. As coalition forces continue attacking both ISIS and al-Nusra positions, Bashar al-Assad is rubbing his hands with glee, smelling another opportunity for survival. One Syrian government minister expressed satisfaction with the US and coalition airstrikes, saying that "they are proceeding in the right direction in terms of informing the Syrian government and by not targeting Syrian military installations."

No doubt that co-opting Arab nations in the fight against ISIS is a positive development. In an editorial on 24th August the New York Times said:

"The prospects of defeating ISIS would be greatly improved if other Muslim nations could see ISIS for the threat it is."

The case for helping the FSA to defeat ISIS and Assad:

The Free Syrian Army and tribal leaders have proven to be the most effective force in fighting against ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates. On May 16, Free Syrian Army units in Aleppo province announced the launch of an anti-al Qaeda offensive titled "Operation Earthquake of the North". On May 19, five powerful rebel coalitions signed a "Revolutionary Covenant" denouncing "fundamentalism and extremism." On June 12, the Free Syrian Army's Southern Front Command released a statement reiterating the rebels' commitment to democratic principles.

The defeat of ISIS on the ground in Syria unequivocally and absolutely requires the establishment of no fly zones on the Turkish borders in the north, and Jordanian borders in the south, and the arming of the Free Syrian Army. Airstrikes against selective targets can help in degrading the ISIS. Almost three years ago Anne-Marie Slaughter in an opinion piece in NY Times Feb 2012 called for "no-kill zones near the Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian borders".

The FSA and other moderate rebels can then turn their attention to the Assad regime. This is the most cost-effective option for the international allies, and the least costly.