- REUTERS/Randall Hill
In several interviews last week, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump expanded on his ideas about how to defeat ISIS, suggesting the United States should let Russia take out the terror group while the US stands down.
But experts have said the logistics of such a plan are full of holes.
In a “60 Minutes” interview last Sunday, Trump told CBS correspondent Scott Pelley that he would end the war against the terror group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State) by first letting ISIS take out Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the US has said must step aside if ISIS is to be defeated.
“Now, let me just say this, ISIS in Syria, Assad in Syria, Assad and ISIS are mortal enemies,” Trump said. “We go in to fight ISIS. Why aren’t we letting ISIS go and fight Assad and then we pick up the remnants? Why are we doing this? We’re fighting ISIS and Assad has to be saying to himself, ‘They have the nicest or dumbest people that I’ve ever imagined.'”
Pelley then asked if Trump was saying the US should let ISIS destroy Assad, who has been known to barrel bomb his own people, and then go in after that to clear out ISIS. Trump agreed, and then suggested that maybe the US could just leave the ISIS problem in Russia’s hands.
“If you look at Syria,” Trump said. “Russia wants to get rid of ISIS. We want to get rid of ISIS. Maybe let Russia do it. Let ’em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?”
Trump reiterated this on CNN on Thursday, saying: “If Russia wants to go in and if Russia want to fight – in particular ISIS, and they do and one of the reasons they do is because they don’t want ISIS coming into their country and that’s going to be the next step. So that’s why they’re there. I think they will be fighting ISIS.”
And on ABC’s “This Week,” Trump said that he wants to “sit back and … see what happens” with Russian airstrikes in Syria.
There are several potential problems with this strategy, experts say.
Assad and ISIS are ‘mortal enemies’
Trump’s assertion that ISIS and Assad are “mortal enemies” is true on its face, since ISIS and the regime are on opposite sides fighting each other for control in Syria.
But Trump’s statement ignores the fact that Assad and ISIS in some ways have a mutually beneficial relationship.
The enemy with which Assad is most concerned is the moderate Syrian rebels, some of whom are backed by the US. They represent a much more legitimate threat to his authority than extremists, and he’d rather wipe them out first and then deal with terrorist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as the Nusra Front), the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
This strategy allows Assad to push the narrative that those who are trying to oust him are terrorists and that Syria would be better left in his hands.
“The regime’s line has always been that Assad is the legitimate ruler of Syria, and they will reassert control over the country, and that the international community should make a choice … it’s the Assad regime or it’s al-Qaeda and ISIS,” Christopher Kozak, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Business Insider earlier this year.
“The Assad regime figures that if they’re the last ones standing, then the only option is accept Assad, even if it’s distasteful, because it’s better than Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.”
Additionally, Assad likely views the Nusra Front and other extremist factions as more immediate threats to his power than ISIS, Kozak said.
“For [the regime], Nusra is the threat that’s more imminent to their core areas just based on the geography,” he said.
This is seemingly confirmed by the fact that Russian airstrikes last week focused on rebel areas that didn’t have a strong ISIS presence:
Assad’s tactics also were a prime factor in ISIS’ rise. Experts have concluded he knowingly fanned the flames of extremism early in the Syrian civil war.
“From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Assad has promoted violent extremism in the hope that violent extremists would replace his real enemies: Syrian nationalists seeking the end to corrupt and violent family rule,” Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told Business Insider via email.
Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan explained in their recent book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” that Assad offered amnesty to known jihadists who were imprisoned in Syria.
“Assad wasted little time guaranteeing that extremists dominated the insurgency,” they wrote. “On May 31, 2011, only a few months into the uprising, he issued a general amnesty as part of his package of ‘reforms,’ mostly symbolic gestures aimed at placating the protest movement. In reality, the amnesty was more of a booby trap than a salve.
“Although meant to free all of Syria’s ‘political prisoners,’ it was applied selectively – plenty of protestors and activists were kept in jail, while an untold number of Salafist-Jihadists were let out.”
Let ISIS fight Assad
It’s highly unlikely that ISIS would be able to defeat Assad militarily.
Assad’s forces are backed by air power. And though ISIS is better-equipped than many moderate rebel groups in Syria, it does not have an air force.
“ISIS remains a potent force in Syria and must be countered, but it will not be marching on Damascus anytime soon, contrary to some uninformed fear mongering,” Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, recently wrote.
This might seem counterintuitive, but assisting ISIS in its fight against other rebel forces in Syria helps get rid of the more moderate opposition fighters who threaten Assad’s power. While the rebels focus mostly on taking down the Assad regime, ISIS fights both the rebels and regime forces.
Russia should ‘get rid of ISIS’
Despite what Russian officials say publicly, President Vladimir Putin’s more immediate goal seems to be defending the Assad regime, one of Russia’s main allies in the Middle East.
Trump acknowledged in his CNN interview that Russia is “probably trying to prop up Assad and help him out.” But he maintained that Russia is hitting ISIS, as well, and suggested that Putin’s forces might be able to take care of the problem altogether.
This isn’t very likely to happen.
Aaron Stein, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told Business Insider last week that Russia’s airstrikes probably won’t be enough to shift the battle lines in Syria. In fact, he said, it will likely only lengthen the four-plus-year-old civil war.
“The Russian strikes are tactical in that there’s not enough aircraft or military power to seriously change the dynamics on the ground,” Stein said. “They can halt rebel offenses … but they can’t reclaim all the territory that’s been lost. The more likely thing is it will prolong the conflict.”
Even if Russia and Syria together were able to defeat ISIS, which is something “neither is interested in nor capable of,” the “conditions of political illegitimacy that permitted ISIS to set up shop in Syria would still exist,” Hof said.
“If Mr. Putin is truly interested in neutralizing ISIS, he will persuade Assad to stop the barrel bombings and other war crimes,” Hof said. ISIS capitalizes on the Assad regime’s atrocities to recruit people, portraying itself as the sole protector of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.
“The Assad regime’s behavior is a recruiting asset of unlimited value for ISIS,” Hof added. “Putin knows all of this: He simply wants to preserve Assad as a permanent rebuke to Washington. And he sees ISIS as Assad’s ticket back to polite society.”