Ignoring wrongs in Syria to battle Islamic State

The US cannot hope the Assad regime will contain Islamic State because the regime’s atrocities are a prime recruiting tool for IS.

Shaam News Network via AP video
This image made from video posted online by the Shaam News Network, a loosely organized group opposed to Bashar Assad, shows rescuers taking a victim from the site of Syrian government airstrikes in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. The United Nations humanitarian chief said on Monday he is "horrified" by the attacks on civilians taking place in Syria, singling out in particular government airstrikes the previous day that killed nearly 100 people in a Damascus suburb.

One of America’s tactics during the cold war was to look the other way when a dictator was brutal in the struggle against communist rebels. By the 1980s, the United States finally realized the fallacy of this idea that “two wrongs make a right.” It began to oppose the atrocities of both tyrants and communists.

A belief in this fallacy has revived, however, regarding Syria and its twin struggles over a pro-democracy rebellion and the rise of Islamic State.

While President Obama has deployed American bombs and US-trained Syrian fighters to target IS fighters, he has taken little action to bring down the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad since it launched a war against Arab Spring protesters in 2011. In fact, the Assad regime is now tacitly regarded as a bulwark against the advance of Islamic rebels – even though the atrocities of the regime far exceed those of IS.

IS may behead people and rape its women prisoners, but Syrian planes drop barrel bombs on large civilian areas and may have used chemical weapons. This week, one aerial bomb reportedly killed about 100 people in a market in Douma.

The main reason to rethink this US stance is because the attacks on Sunni Muslims by the Shiite-leaning government in Damascus have become a prime recruiting tool for IS in attracting Muslims to join the war. The militant group posts images of the regime’s atrocities on websites to win converts from around the world.

A strategic security firm, The Soufan Group, notes the problem for the US: “The [Assad] regime is a terrorism generator of epic proportion, engaging in state terrorism against its own people and inciting terrorism from its opponents.” The firm estimates that the regime’s slaughter of civilians provides IS with “radicalized supporters far faster than Assad’s military can then fight them” while “ensuring a cycle of ever-increasing barbarism.”

The US has taken diplomatic steps to isolate Mr. Assad but little else. It provides aid to Syrian refugees and has tried to organize a cohesive political opposition. But without further steps, the survival of the regime and its ongoing attacks only add more fighters to the ranks of IS.

Any condoning of Assad’s role in containing IS would be to fall for the same false logic that two wrongs make a right. Relying on one of two evils to destroy the other rarely works. Police don’t let one gang kill off another gang. During the cold war, dictators harmed the anti-communist cause more than they helped it.

Both the Assad regime and IS are a threat to the principles of civilian protection in war. Hoping one side can help contain the other goes against this very principle. Support for the principle alone is enough to uproot both evils.

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