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And the winner is: Assad

August 22, 2017

The US is increasingly moving away from its anti-Assad course. Syria's president appears increasingly confident, announcing that conditions will apply to governments that seek to rejig their relationships with Damascus.

Syrian President Assad speaking to diplomats
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Syrian Presidency

On Sunday, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad gave a speech in front of dozens of his country's diplomats. He came across as confident: Among other things, he declared that there would be no cooperation with countries "that do not clearly and definitively cut their ties to terrorism."

This dig was aimed at several states, especially on the Arabian Peninsula. It also refers to a number of EU countries - and the United States. Assad accuses them of collaborating with "terrorists."

Assad has reason to be optimistic. He gave this speech three days after an attacker drove into a crowd in Barcelona,  killing 14 people and injuring more than 100. Assad told the assembled diplomats that hardly a week goes by in Europe or the US without a terror attack backed by the Islamic State (IS). "This fact has forced Western politicians to change their attitude," he said.

Read more - A timeline of the Syrian civil war

A memorial left on Las Ramblas in Barcelona
Terrorist attacks in Europe and the grief they provoke are playing right into Assad's handsImage: Reuters/S. Vera

Fighting IS takes top priority

And the United States has indeed taken a new approach to Syria for some time. A few weeks ago, US President Donald Trump announced that he would discontinue a  CIA program to support Assad's opponents. This was in response to the venture's lack of success. Out of thousands of fighters the United States had trained, only a few had proven to be reliable partners.

It is not only by shutting down this program that the United States has signaled that it will increasingly distance itself from Assad's opponents. At the same time it is growing closer to Russia, which has always supported the Assad government. In an interview with the American broadcaster Fox News in early August, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US still wanted to prevent Assad from staying in power. However, he went on to add that the US and Russia had a common interest in seeing a unified and stable Syria. In Russia's view, that can only be achieved in the medium term with Assad as head of state.

Rex Tillerson in Manila
US top diplomat Tillerson is plotting a new course on SyriaImage: picture-alliance /dpa/Reuters Pool/AP/E. De Casto

The Trump administration's course is therefore just as hesitant as that of Barack Obama. The reason is obvious: People in Washington perceive the jihadist terrorist groups like IS and al-Qaida as a serious threat.

"The Salafi-jihadi movement – not [simply] distinct groups or individuals – threatens the United States, the West, and Muslim communities," according to Critical Threats, a project of the conservative American think tank The American Enterprise Institute.

Its article continues: "Europe and the American homeland face an unprecedented level of facilitated and inspired terrorist attacks. This situation is not success, stalemate, or slow winning, and still less does it reflect an enemy 'on the run.' It is failure."

Hezbollah as a partner?

Diagnoses like this are obviously gaining traction in Washington. The political consequences are becoming apparent: For example, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported in early August that American special forces were training with the Lebanese military for an anticipated confrontation with IS troops.

The Lebanese military, however, cannot clearly be separated from the paramilitary group Hezbollah, which is allied to Iran. Ha'aretz quotes the Middle East analyst Faysal Itani from the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East: "Both Lebanon and Hezbollah occupy a grey area," he says. "Lebanon isn't really a state, and Hezbollah isn't a terrorist group – or isn't only a terrorist group, depending on your view.”

The USA can't get around this entanglement, either. The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has clearly outlined the implications of these new alliances in the common fight against IS: "The world is currently assuming that the Syrian regime is going to stay," Ha'aretz quoted him as saying a few days later.

Hezbollah adherents in Lebanon
Hezbollah as a partner for the west? Here young supporters of its movement march in Kfar Hatta, LebanonImage: Getty Images/AFPM. Zayyat

The wrong war

But the political action taken by the Obama administration in response to the jihadist threat was controversial; the Trump administration's even more so. Rapprochement with Russia is risky, says a study by the Washington think tank Institute for the Study of War. The most problematic thing, it points out, is the choice of new allies: "Sunni Arabs view the US as aligned with the deepening Russo-Iranian coalition and complicit in its atrocities."

It does seem that Assad is going to stay in power, at least for the time being. He has succeeded in presenting himself as a bulwark against jihadism. From his point of view, this portrayal makes absolute sense. But if the Sunnis should come to the conclusion that they were now facing an alliance of Shiites, Russia and the USA, this would probably once again fuel jihadism. The American think tanks warn that, if this should happen, the terrorism we are seeing now would be just the precursor to a subsequent, even more brutal expression.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East