Syria: Walking a fine line
By Claude Salhani
Senior editor of the English service of Trend Agency
The Syrian civil war is entering its fourth year this spring and until now the conflict has failed to produce a clear victor. So far, victory has oscillated back and forth between the pro- and anti-regime forces, demonstrating that any chance of a clear-cut victory by any one side remains highly unlikely. That is if the final outcome of the carnage can still be called a victory when to date more than 150,000 people have been killed, some six million turned into refugees and the country is in shambles.
To top it off, this past year has been particularly hard on the pro-government forces and that despite military support from Iran and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah. With the opposition getting more organized and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad taking a pounding in several parts of the country the government needed to be creative if it were to survive.
So it is reverting to age-old Levantine traditions with the Syrian president making deals on the side, entering into some unholy alliances with jihadi and mercenary forces.
That could be a mistake that could prove to be President Bashar
Ironically, Assad's agreement with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is an unholy alliance if there ever was one, and is reminiscent of the alliance the Lebanese Christians got themselves into during the 15-year civil war in Lebanon when the Christians asked the Syrians to enter Lebanon to help them out.
Today Assad is making the very same mistakes the Lebanese Christians committed when they allowed Syrian troops to enter Lebanon.
These alliances have yielded positive results on the ground. For the first time the Syrian troops and their allies have started to score major breakthroughs as they did in the strategic town of Yabroud, close to the Lebanese border.
The arrangement with the Islamists is finally starting to tip the conflict in favor of the regime -albeit slowly-, and most certainly not definitely, as the tables keep turning. But what happens next? Will the Assad regime be able to get along with the jihadists? Unlikely.
To understand what may happen is to look at who is behind the creation of ISIS. Any one with knowledge of the region, its customs and norms, will be left with no doubt that that not only is it inevitable, but it is practically guaranteed that at some point down the road and in the not too distant future, Assad and ISIS are going to clash.
ISIS was founded when Assad released a number of jihadis from prison in 2011, says Lina Khatib, director of Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, in a commentary written on al-Jazeera's website.
Khatib writes: But this strategic alliance with ISIS will backfire once ISIS becomes self-reliant. Like other mercenary groups, ISIS has been profiteering from the war economy. In Iraq, the group has reportedly become largely self-financing due to its control of oil wells. If ISIS in Syria heads in the same direction - a highly likely scenario - then it will become very difficult for the regime to control it?
Clearly the arrangement with the Islamist groups is not a
marriage of love nor have the Islamists accepted to enter into a
formal agreement with pro-government forces.
Their hatred of the Baathists and the Alawites has not lessened by any means. It's just that today's other enemy takes precedence over the first group of enemies. What is it that they say The enemy of my enemy?. Tomorrow is another day and there will be another opportunity to fight the regime's forces.
But seen from the Syrian president's perspective, he was in a vulnerable position and his enemies were gaining the upper hand in a war that he could not afford to lose. When someone is in that position a natural reaction is to grab any extended hand that reaches out. To quote former Lebanese president and Christian warlord Camille Chamoun, when you are drowning and the hand that reaches out is covered with excrement, you grab it nonetheless. He was referring to the Syrian army when it was invited by the Christians to intervene in Lebanon.
In allying himself with ISIS and the like, Bashar may in essence place Syria in a position similar to what the Lebanese Christians found themselves in during the Lebanese civil war. The support given the Islamist group by Assad has strengthened it and if things go the way the jihadis hope, they could well end up in control of the little oil that Syria currently produces, adding to the oil revenues they now have from Iraqi oil.
Without oil the Lebanese managed to keep their civil war going for 15 year. With oil money coming in from Arab oil producing countries in addition to its own, Syria's civil war could last yet another few years.