Published daily by the Lowy Institute

To combat ISIS, refocus international attention on Assad and revive the Geneva process

To combat ISIS, refocus international attention on Assad and revive the Geneva process

In March 2011, the Syrian people started their national uprising, motivated by the Arab Spring and following decades of oppression under the dynastic Assad regime.

The peaceful uprising lasted for an entire year. The Syrian regime confronted it with violence and directed its security forces, and the so-called Shabiha militias, to confront defenceless people, leaving behind hundreds of Syrian victims and thousands of detainees. From the beginning the regime tried to push the Syrian uprising toward violence, knowing that this would undermine international support for the opposition. It has also taken steps to help ensure that the opposition's ranks included many extremists.

For example, in June 2011, Bashar al Assad issued an amnesty decree, freeing a number of militant Islamists and al Qaeda-linked prisoners, knowing that they would find their way into the opposition and help discredit it.

Today the international community appears more worried by the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq than the abuses and atrocities being committed by the Syrian regime. But what the international community has ignored are the ways the regime has encouraged the rise of ISIS.

ISIS espouses the ideology of Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al Zarqawi. There have been claims that the Assad regime had knowledge that Zarqawi and his terrorist network were using Syrian territory to funnel jihadists into Iraq during the American occupation. ISIS has been able to take over parts of Syria without being targeted by the Assad regime, even though the Syrian Air Force is targeting Syrian civilians daily using explosive barrels and missiles. Questions have also been raised about how ISIS has been able to move fighters, arms and cash and sell its petroleum on the black market as easily as it has. [fold]

Even as it has lost territory to ISIS, the Syrian regime has benefited from the group's notoriety. This has seen the international community shift its focus from overthrowing the Syrian regime to tackling ISIS. 

The truth is, however, that the international community would benefit in its struggle against ISIS by re-focusing its attention on the Syrian regime through the so-called Geneva process. It's impossible to eliminate the spread of extremist ideology and military expansion under the continuous death, violence, and crimes committed by the regime every day.  Ending the Syrian conflict by establishing a new interim government would be major step forward in undermining the growing power of ISIS.

What should the international community do to help revive the Geneva process?

The regime is weaker than ever before because the Free Syrian Army has seized large areas in northern Syria and even Dara in the south. Furthermore, recent political initiatives have created some movement on the Syrian issue. For instance, there was news recently about the meetings between Saudi Arabia and Assad's National Security Advisor, Ali Mamlouk. This seemed to come about from a Russian initiative, suggesting that perhaps the Russians are beginning to consider a Syrian solution without Assad.

Such initiatives should have one motive, which is launching the political process and stopping the war. Initiatives like this must be supported internationally by putting pressure on the national and international parties to the conflict to respond positively to the political process. Iran and Russia have to stop supporting the regime, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar must do the same with the Syrian opposition. This must happen when the political solution begins. 

No success can be achieved unless the spirit and vision of the Geneva 1 outcome document are adopted. What we need now is a decision from the UN Security Council under Chapter VII enforcing the application of a political solution passed in Geneva on all parties, and prompting the regime and the opposition to go back to the negotiation table. 

Syria needs a national conference to create a governing body to oversee the drafting of a new constitution and the launching of the transitional phase of parliamentary and presidential elections. Only then can all Syrians move on to face ISIS.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United States Mission Geneva.

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