BEIRUT: Syria is wagering that Islamic State’s push to reshape the Middle East will eventually force a hostile West to deal with President Bashar al-Assad as the only way to tackle the threat.
While Assad’s forces escalate their fight with Islamic State militants in the Syrian civil war, the United States is staging air strikes on the same group across the frontier in Iraq.
This, along with United Nations sanctions targeting the Sunni Muslim militants in both Syria and Iraq, has strengthened Assad’s belief that the United States and Europe are coming around to his way of viewing the conflict, according to sources familiar with Syrian government thinking.
Officials in the Western governments which have backed the uprising against Assad dismiss the idea of rapprochement.
Syria is not Iraq, they say.
But growing Western concern about Islamic State is stirring debate about Syria policy. More than three years into the civil war, the moderate Syrian opposition that the West hoped would prevail has been eclipsed by radical Islamists.
The Damascus government, already heartened by visits from European intelligence agencies reported by Syrian officials earlier this year, sees the war on Islamic State as opening up new possibilities for engagement.
There is no sign of any shift in Washington, whose policy is built on Assad leaving power and last year came close to bombing Syria after accusing him of using chemical weapons. “He’s part of the problem,” Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said in a broadcast interview.
Assad is not expecting the West to perform a policy U-turn soon, the sources said. But having secured territory seen as vital for his survival, time is on Assad’s side as he takes the long view in the struggle for Syria.
“The regime recognizes that the Western opening will be in secret, and via security channels and not diplomacy. The political-diplomatic opening needs longer,” said Salem Zahran, a Lebanese journalist with close ties to the Syrian government. “But the regime believes that the whole world will come to coordinate with it under the slogan ‘fighting terrorism’.”
Damascus is presenting itself as a partner in fighting a common enemy which has proclaimed a cross border caliphate in the territory it controls. Islamic State fighters move freely between Iraq and Syria.
Assad’s forces have suffered heavy losses at the hands of Islamic State in recent engagements, and the Syrian air force launched its heaviest raids yet on the group’s stronghold in the eastern city of Raqqa last weekend.
Controlling roughly a third of Syria, Islamic State is by far the strongest insurgent group in a war that has killed 170,000 people, laid waste to much of Syria, and reduced Assad’s control to western areas including Damascus.
Assad has characterized his opponents as extremists from the start of the uprising in 2011, when his forces violently suppressed peaceful protesters inspired by the Arab Spring. Critics say this encouraged radicalisation of his opponents.
Islamist groups now dominate the fragmented opposition. The second most powerful is Nusra Front - al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria - whose rivalry with Islamic State has fueled war among the insurgents themselves.
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