'Realist' Scholar's Argument Delights the Syrian Regime: 'To Crush ISIS, Make a Deal With Assad"!

By 
Elie Chalala
(Artwork: "Damascus" by Imran Faour)


One will hardly find a legitimate religious or secular authority supporting ISIS. But we also can hardly find an authority who discounts the importance of a political solution, either preceding or simultaneously implemented with an all-out anti-ISIS war. Exceptions do exist, and one in particular perplexes, since the scholar in question has closed his eyes and turned a deaf ear to what in Arabic is called (البيئة الحاضنة)--the communities that support ISIS, or otherwise constitute its popular constituency. This scholar, Ahmad Samih Khalidi, recently advanced an argument of sorts that even made it to the editorial pages of the New York Times. Khalidi, whom the NYT identifies as a visiting academic at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, and a former Palestinian peace negotiator, recommends that the U.S. "crush" ISIS by reaching out to the Assad regime, Hezbollah and their patrons. He spells this argument out in his essay: "To Crush ISIS, Make a Deal With Assad." 

All jargon of international relations theory aside, Khalidi offers a "realist" argument grounded in regional power distribution. Like any pundit concerned with the credibility of his position, Khalidi covers his bases as he heads to the intellectual battlefield. He denies the existence of a moderate Syrian opposition, claiming that all oppositions are bound to be non-moderate, and demonstrates a sense of irony when he compares the concept of "moderate opposition" with that of "moderate armed terrorist." 

The short, and selective character of Khalidi's memory discounts the longstanding, bloody history of the Syrian regime vis-à-vis the peaceful opposition. Prior to mid-March 2011, Assad’s approach to dissenters ranged from killing them, to incarcerating and torturing them for decades, often to the point of death, and even extended to massacring and destroying an ancient city like Hama, an event that prompted Thomas Friedman, another, and oft-published, Times pundit, to coin the phrase "Hama rules." As for the popular uprising period, the regime’s prisons overflow with a large number of peaceful detainees like Abdel-Aziz al-Khair, and the artist Youssef Abdelke (released later), among others, while Assad’s loyal armed forces have employed aerial bombing, barrel-bombs, scud missile attacks, and the use of chemical weapons. Are we to believe that any of this aggression will encourage a peaceful opposition to emerge and assume the title of "moderate?"

Khalidi, like many critics of the Syrian opposition, offers rehashed claims such as the lack of unity, and the absence of a coherent political program. Paying absolutely no attention to how the destruction of politics in Syria bears the lion’s share of responsibility for the fragmentation of the opposition, Mr. Khalidi brushes aside Geneva I and Geneva II. By most accounts, Assad met these blueprints for a peaceful transition of power in Syria with outright rejection. Only the naive would accept that the he would now rush to embrace a "convincing" program or a viable alternative offered by his victims.

Having created this distorted background, Khalidi moves straight ahead to his “realist” analysis. This apparently tells him the U.S. is misguided and its plans to "crush" ISIS are irrational. What misgivings, then, does he harbor about the U.S. approach?

Since Khalidi draws his inspiration directly from international relations textbooks, it should perhaps come as no surprise that he writes like one as well. He has already reached the conclusion that no reliable allies exist for the U.S. in the battle against ISIS, since the Syrian opposition, which he classifies as neither a moderate nor a unified front, appears, from his point of view, to be engaged in a war within itself, or as Khalidi puts it, a war within Wahhabism, as well as a war between different Salafi groups. In our “realist’s” mind, it appears that the U.S.'s approach aims to appease the Saudi and Gulf governments who, the author believes, along with the U.S., possess a fetish for regime change, something we are told will inevitably jeopardize all efforts to defeat ISIS. It goes then without saying that, according to Khalidi, any approach that would ally the U.S. with the Salafis would prove counterproductive because of these groups' hostile attitudes towards the West. Our realist sees this as just one of several issues, the second of which concerns his belief that the Shiites, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah will view as a threat any attempt to work with the Sunni coalition.  Meanwhile, the author makes the case for why the U.S. should ally itself with the Assad regime. Aware of the regime's cruelty, Khalidi states openly that Assad's brutality poses no threat to the West, because the regime shares a common objective with the U.S. He also makes a similar claim about Hezbollah. Our realist admits that the balance of power certainly favors the Syrian regime and its allies, especially when its army has exhibited exceptional cohesiveness since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. Further, since the U.S. campaign against ISIS remains unwinnable solely from the sky, the only effective forces on the ground are those of the regime and Hezbollah.  Khalidi goes on to label the U.S. as misguided if it decides to ally itself with the Syrian moderate opposition, since they remain inherently weak, not, in his opinion, because of the delayed Western support, but rather as a result of their fragmentation. Thus, irrespective of the renewed Western support, he believes this alliance with the opposition will not stand, militarily speaking, against the Assad regime and its allies. 

Surprisingly, the author seems to have chosen the military solution over the political.  Khalidi appears as either a naive realist, or a bad textbook realist, when he excludes the political component from the anti-ISIS strategy. This becomes evident when his recommendation for the U.S. so blatantly disregards the consensus reached by the regional and international community that "crushing" ISIS will necessitate, either before the war or simultaneous with the war, addressing the social and political conditions which have provided the extremists with a popular base. Equally disorienting, Khalidi overlooks the widely shared notion that the job of fighting ISIS belongs to the Sunnis, and that only they can win the war against this organization. Few would downplay the marginalization of the Sunnis by Iraq's Shiites and Syria's Alawites as a cause of the rise of ISIS. 

It feels surreal to even contemplate the possibility of Western powers crushing ISIS while allying with a regime that has facilitated the deaths of more than 200,000 of its citizens, displaced half of Syria's population, and transformed more than half of the country's infrastructure into a pile of rubble. How could the oppressed and marginalized Sunni communities ever trust in an alliance made with their tormentors?

Without falling into the trap of Khalidi's strategic analysis, one cannot help asking what type of concrete data could possibly support his claim that the Syrian army can meet the military challenge of defeating ISIS and the opposition. That army has been engaged in a war for more than three and a half years, and still cannot put an end to the country's uprising. The same can be said about Khalidi’s other candidate for a suitable U.S. ally. As it turns out, Hezbollah’s "victories" in areas adjacent to the Lebanese-Syrian borders like in Qalamoun, Yabroud and Qusayr  have not only been exaggerated, but have also been causing complete mayhem in Lebanon by sending more than 100,000 refugees into the Lebanese town of Arsal.

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