Recent gains by the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) in Iraq have temporarily reduced international pressure against the Assad regime in Syria. There is no rebel party with the military capability to counter ISIS, and diplomatic attention in the region has shifted towards trying to keep Iraq together and the Israel-Gaza war.
However, the Islamic State also presents a new challenge to the Assad regime; an organized, battle ready opponent. 700 people died over a two day span last week in fighting between the IS and Assad regime, marking the two deadliest days of the 3+ year Syrian Civil War:
The two-day death toll occurred last Thursday and Friday, with brutal fighting between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the IS that centered around a gas field, according to reports released this week from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based anti-Syrian government group that keeps tabs on the war’s dead.
For several months, the Assad government has held the upper hand against Syrian rebels, which have become increasingly fractured. That reality was underscored Tuesday, when the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition said it had voted to force out its “interim government” and form a new one within a month.
Attempts to form a viable government-in-exile for Syria’s opposition have been hamstrung by internal rivalries and by its inability to establish itself inside Syria.
So long as the opposition remains divided, a number of analysts have suggested that besides benefiting the Assad government, it may also bode well for IS prospects in Syria.
“The potential for ISIS [another name for the Islamic State] to engineer a similar resurgence in Syria [as Iraq] is real,” wrote Noah Bonsey, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, in the Huffington Post.
“Should it succeed, ISIS would be well-positioned to present itself to Sunnis in the region at large as the only remaining force with the strength to oppose reviled regimes in Baghdad and Damascus.”
Western powers have stated they would help the Iraqi government counter the IS, on the condition that Iraq creates an inclusive government. It would be hard to imagine any situation in which the Assad regime would be extended a similar offer (unless of course he offered to step down, but if 3 years of war and 150,000+ deaths haven’t convinced him, the IS will not). This new enemy, alongside his recent victory in Presidential “elections”, has only further embolden Assad, even as the humanitarian situation continues to devolve.
While deadlocked on the idea of taking punitive military action against Assad, the UNSC finally took concrete steps to address the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis:
Despite objections by Syria’s government, the United Nations Security Council voted 15 to 0 on Monday to authorize cross-border convoys of emergency aid for millions of deprived Syrian civilians in rebel-held areas, without prior approval by the Syrian authorities.
Nearly half of Syria’s population — 10.8 million people — need assistance because of the war, and roughly half of them live in rebel-held areas.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad had insisted that all international aid be channeled through Damascus, the capital, and very little, if any, had been getting to civilians in areas not controlled by the government. Mr. Assad’s political opponents said the inequity of aid distribution was part of an effort by him to use the assistance, including medicine, as a weapon of war to sicken and starve rebel-held areas into submission.
Under the resolution, which is legally binding, United Nations convoys can enter Syria through two crossings in Turkey, one in Iraq and one in Jordan, all of which are beyond the Syrian government’s control. United Nations officials had previously identified these crossings as important routes for getting aid to isolated civilians.
Sylvie Lucas, the ambassador from Luxembourg, said the Syrian government’s denial of aid to rebel-held areas was the main reason for the resolution. In remarks to the Council after the vote, she said the resolution’s sponsors had been “forced to seek other means, other ways to ensure that humanitarian aid is provided to more Syrians, wherever they may live.”
Under the resolution, she said, “the consent of the Syrian government will no longer be necessary.”
A group of 34 nongovernmental organizations that have worked with the United Nations in trying to help Syrian civilians, including Oxfam and Save the Children, also welcomed the Security Council resolution. In a statement, the group called it “a diplomatic breakthrough that must translate into real change on the ground.”
The Assad regime has withheld aid as a military tactic, hoping to break the will of pro-rebel groups by depriving them of basic needs. This is a diabolic act, in blatant violation of international humanitarian law.
With recent gains by the IS, what was once a matter of “will” (the Assad regime not wanting to deliver aid to rebel areas) has also become an issue of “capacity” (the Assad regime is likely no longer able to reach certain areas with aid). This confluence of factors has forced the UNSC, including Russia, to allow aid to be delivered to the 10 million+ Syrians who need it without the Assad regime’s approval. After 3+ years of fighting and untold human suffering, human rights have finally triumphed over “national sovereignty” in Syria.
Assad may be more confident now, but this confidence is further evidence of his delusion. Syria is fragmenting around him, while he trumpets a victory in a sham of an election.