In Syria, the West has been keen not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq—defined as being drawn into an open-ended ‘war of choice’ in the Middle East. This insight led to watching with folded arms as the regime of Bashar al-Assad massacred peaceful protesters and depopulated ancient cities with fighter jets and poison gas, an exodus that spread instability into Europe and allowed menacing strategic adversaries like Iran and Russia to gain footholds that Western policy had heretofore denied them.
Only once the Islamic State (IS) had a caliphate and was beheading Western hostages was it decided that it was time to do something. Needing partners, the West offered Syrians the chance to help us defeat terrorists whose rise the regime had facilitated for more than a decade. In exchange, we would enable al-Assad and his allies—Iran, its foreign legion of Shi’a jihadists, and Russia—or parties perceived as aligned with the regime, such as the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), to conquer the territory liberated from IS. This put those rebels who wanted to work with us in the impossible position of being seen as mercenaries who had betrayed the revolution—opening further space for the jihadists.
The notion that IS, a symptom of the war al-Assad started, could be treated with a narrow counter-terrorism strategy—in isolation from broader conflict—was always a fantasy. The recent collision between the coalition’s anti-IS war and the civil war is merely the intrusion of reality: it was one war all along. As the US-led coalition was destroying the caliphate, it was parcelling out territory to various contenders in Syria, changing the political and military balance in the wider war—mostly against the rebellion, from which IS had taken most of its territory.
Still, for many Westerners, there is something that just doesn’t quite compute; al-Assad ‘is a bad guy,’ but IS are monsters! They drown people in cages and enslave Yazidis—medieval savagery that must surely be everybody’s priority. Mustafa Khalifa’s 2008 novel The Shell helps break down this moral illusion between a jihadist organisation that revels in its brutality and a regime that proceeds in silence with a system of near-indescribable cruelty on a scale the Islamic State cannot even dream of.
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