Who is Putin really protecting Assad from?

Mark N. Katz writes: Although the West may not like Assad, Russian officials and commentators are saying, his authoritarian regime is preferable to an even worse one that IS would establish that would pose a real threat to Western, as well as Russian, interests. Furthermore, Assad regime forces are needed in order to stop IS from taking over more — or even the rest — of Syria. Western insistence that Assad must step down, then, is foolish since this would gravely weaken the forces fighting against IS. The West should work with Moscow and the Assad regime against the common IS threat, and not against them.

This argument is based on the premise that the Assad regime is actively fighting against IS. There have been numerous reports, though, that the Assad regime and IS have actually not been fighting with each other, or not doing so very much. A widely quoted study by IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center at the end of last year noted that the Assad regime’s “counterterrorism operations…skew heavily towards groups whose names aren’t ISIS. Of 982 counterterrorism operations for the year up through Nov. 21 [2014], just 6 percent directly targeted ISIS.”

In February of this year, Time reported on a Sunni businessman with close ties to the Assad regime describing various forms of actual cooperation between the Assad regime and IS, including how the Assad regime buys oil from IS-controlled oil facilities, how Syria’s two main mobile phone operators provide service and send repair teams to IS-controlled areas, and how Damascus allows food shipments to the IS capital, Raqqa.

At the beginning of June 2015, US Embassy Damascus “accused the Syrian government of providing air support to an advance by Islamic State militants against opposition groups north of Aleppo.” In July, Turkish intelligence sources claimed that “an agreement was made between the Assad regime and ISIS to destroy the Free Syrian Army in the country’s north.”

Why would the Assad regime not fight against IS and even cooperate with it? Both of them have an interest in weakening their common foes: Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other countries. [Continue reading…]

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