How complicated is Syria? Trump just helped ISIS
We like our problems clean and direct. Good versus evil. Good fights evil. Good wins.
The Syrian regime of President Assad is evil. Its use of chemical weapons to murder children was barbaric. It makes sense to not let him get away with it. So, you can argue that President Trump was right to order missile strikes against the regime.
This satisfying moral action, however, should not make us dumb down a complicated conflict. The dominant reality of the Syrian conflict today is that it represents evil vs evil. You can get rid of one evil only to see something worse replace it.
On one side of the conflict, you have the Assad regime, supported by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. A few years ago, Assad was on life support. Now, with his strong partners, he’s made a comeback.
On the other side of the conflict are anti-regime rebel groups who fight each other as much as they fight the Assad regime.
The largest is ISIS, with 25,000 to 80,000 fighters. ISIS has become the enemy par excellence in the Western world. Trump has talked incessantly about destroying them. Now consider this: By striking Assad, Trump ended up helping ISIS. Complicated enough?
Besides ISIS, there are groups like Al-Nusra Front (15,000 to 20,000 fighters), Jaysh al-Islam (17,000 to 25,000), Ahrar ash-Sham (10,000 to 20,000), Asala wa-al-Tanmiya (13,000), Jaysh al-Fatah (10,000), Sham Legion (4,000) and Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union (3,000).
In the middle of this jungle is the Free Syrian Army, with 100,000 fighters, which was started by former Syrian officers. Everyone seems to fight them.
Geography further complicates the picture. The country has been heavily splintered. Different groups have different power bases. Of course, the more land you can conquer the more power you have.
In the North is the Kurdish group, which is another story altogether, because Kurds are known to be more moderate. But Turkey hates the Kurds. Just as Iran and Syria are supporting the Assad regime, countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are supporting their own rebel groups.
The point is this: Syria has become a complete, violent mess. When it comes to the most likely winners in this conflict, the choice has become evil versus evil. The good people of Syria who initially rose up against Assad, and the militias they organized, have been slowly crushed.
As much as it may satisfy us to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, it’s important to keep our eye on the whole picture. What can America do? At this point, not much. Six years ago, when the more moderate rebel forces were stronger, we could have given them military assistance and established no-fly zones. Would it have worked? Who knows? There’s no certainty when so many violent forces are at play.
What we do know today is that extremist groups have the upper hand pretty much everywhere and that Russia has established its own military presence. That limits our options. On the humanitarian front, we can certainly help establish safe zones to assist the millions of refugees. We can even order the occasional pinprick attack to show we’re still here and we have our limits, and the use of chemical weapons is one of them.
But let’s be real. There are no good options. The Syrian fire has gotten too big to simply suffocate. Yes, let’s stay vigilant. Let’s make sure things don’t get too out of hand and spill over into other countries (like Israel). But as vexed as I am to say this, when evil fights evil, sometimes the best option is to let them fight it out, and to help ensure no one wins.
As Daniel Pipes writes, “Iranian- and Russian-backed Shi’ite pro-government jihadis are best kept busy fighting Saudi-, Qatar-, and Turkish-backed anti-government Sunni jihadis; because Kurds, however appealing, are not contenders for control of the whole of Syria; and because Americans have no stomach for another Middle Eastern war.”
Trump can go on about how attacking Assad is a “vital U.S. interest,” but who’s he kidding? Is he ready to invite the head of ISIS to the White House for peace talks?
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.