Assad no longer main threat in Syria | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 23.08.2014
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Assad no longer main threat in Syria

The "Islamic State" is waging war in Syria. But even though President Bashir al-Assad fights a dangerous battle against the IS, he can be safe in the knowledge that he is no longer public enemy number one in the West.

Syria has been at war for over three years. Over 190,000 people have been killed, many of its cities, towns and villages razed to the ground. But the international fight against the terrorist group "Islamic State" - or IS - in Iraq has overshadowed events in neighboring Syria.

Despite the fact that IS, which originated in Iraq as an al Qaeda splinter group, managed to gain prominence and gather steam during the fighting in the Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah.

At first, Assad did not differentiate between his enemies, he simply labeled all of them "terrorists," who he said were committing crimes and massacres directed at the Syrian people.

It is not clear why, in early 2012, he ordered the release of hundreds of Islamists, most of which were Salafist leaders from the Saidnaya prison near Damascus. Some Syria experts claim it is part of the Assad regime's strategy to remind people of a potential Islamist reign of terror.

IS against the regime

Less than a few months ago, Syrian opposition groups received French weapons, according to President Francois Hollande. But the moderate opposition groups in Syria are on the retreat, as they have to fight the regime as well as the terrorist opposition groups.

In the beginning, the Jihadists did not fight Assad's military, they focused instead on gaining control of the areas that had been liberated by Syrian rebels. It weakened the resistance against Assad and played into the regime's hands.

ISIS Kämpfer in Rakka Syrien

IS fighters are looking to control Syria's Ar-Raqqah province

"From a military point of view, IS is one of the biggest dangers for Assad," Jochen Hippler, political scientist at the University of Duisburg in western Germany, told German public radio.

In Aleppo, for example, moderate opposition groups are increasingly on the defensive as IS fighters approach the city. In the north and east of the country, they control one third of Syria's total landmass. On Friday, IS extremists fought Syrian forces for control of a strategic military airport in the east. It is the last bastion of the regime in Ar-Raqqah province. If the extremists manage to take the airport, they will be able to rule the province at will.

The gains made by IS in Syria are weakening the regime, which is why Syria's air force is now officially singling out the "Islamic State" as a target. The US has also said it is no longer ruling out attacks on IS in Syria.

An unwelcome partner?

Syria experts believe the gains IS has made in Syria could make Assad a partner, albeit unwelcome, of the West even though the UK has ruled out any cooperation with the Syrian leader.

Only last week, US President Barack Obama called the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons an "important achievement." At the same time, he warned Assad not to commit crimes against his people, but he did not call for his resignation.

"The verbal, political attacks on Mr. Assad by the West have obviously been toned down, as he is no longer perceived as the main threat - the focus is now on the 'Islamic State'," Hippler said.

While the West is supporting the Kurds in Iraq, and the US is launching airstrikes there, there was no such military aid for Syria, which is why many Syrians feel they have been left to their own devices.

"Many Syrians don't even perceive Assad as the main threat anymore, he is now the lesser of two evils," Hippler said, given the brutal methods of the IS terrorists, shown in various explicit videos.

The Jihadists seem to be the number-one enemy now - not just for Syrians, but also, potentially, for the West.

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