The fall of Ramadi to Islamic State troops on Wednesday (May 20) was not a big deal. The city was deep inside IS-held territory, IS fighters had controlled 80 percent of it since March, and we already knew that the Iraqi army can’t fight. Even so, Islamic State is not going to take much more of Iraq. What it doesn’t already hold is either Shia or just not Arab at all (Kurdistan), and that is not fertile ground for Sunni Arab fanatics.
The fall of Palmyra on Friday (May 22) was a very big deal, because it was clear evidence that the Syrian army’s morale is starting to crumble. It was doing quite well until last summer and even regaining ground from the insurgents, but the tide has now turned. After every defeat and retreat, it gives up more easily at the next stop. It may be too late already, but at best the Syrian regime is now in the Last Chance Saloon.
The Syrian army is very tired and short of manpower after four years of war, but what is really making the difference is that the insurgents are now united in two powerful groups rather than being split into dozens of bickering fragments. Unfortunately, both of those groups are Islamist fanatics.
The Al Nusra Front had to fight very hard for Idlib, the northwestern provincial capital, in March, but Islamic State met little resistance when it took over the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk in April. And Palmyra and the adjacent gas fields, which the regime fought for months to defend last year, fell to Islamic State this month after just four days.
It’s never possible to say when a hard-pressed army will actually collapse, but the Syrian army is now in the zone. If the Assad regime does go under, Islamic State and the Nusra Front will take over all of Syria. What happens next would be very ugly.
Islamic State and the Nusra Front are both “takfiri” groups who believe that Muslims who do not follow their own extreme version of Sunni Islam are “apostates”, not real Muslims, and that they deserve to be killed. Around one-third of Syria’s population are “apostates” by this definition—Alawites, other Shias, and Druze—and they are all at great risk.
True, the Nusra Front has been less outspoken about its intentions than Islamic State, but that’s just a question of timing and tactics. The basic ideology is the same, and the Nusra Front in power would be committed by its own religious beliefs to exactly the same murderous “cleansing” of the population. When religious fanatics tell you they intend to do something, it is wise to take them seriously.
An Islamist victory in Syria could entail the death of millions. It would also cause panic in the neighbouring Arab countries, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Yet no nearby Arab country will put troops into Syria to stop the looming disaster, because they cannot imagine fighting fellow Sunnis in Syria, however extreme their doctrine, in order to save the Shia regime of Bashar al Assad.
You don’t get the choices you would like to have. You only get the choices that are on the table, even if you are the president of the world’s only superpower. At this point Barack Obama has only two options: save the Syrian regime, or let it go under and live with the consequences.
It’s not even clear that he can save it. He cannot and should not put American troops on the ground in Syria, but he could provide military and economic aid to the Syrian regime—and, more importantly, put U.S. airpower at the service of the Syrian army.
Even that might not save Assad’s regime, but it would certainly help the morale of the army and the two-thirds of the population that still lives under his rule. With more and better weapons and U.S. air support, the Syrian army might be able to catch its breath and regain its balance. It would be a gamble, and if Obama did that he would be alienating two major allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But if he doesn’t do it, very bad things may follow.
U.S. planes are already bombing Islamic State (and the Nusra Front too, in practice) all over northern Syria, but they did not bomb the IS troops attacking Palmyra. That was a deliberate decision, not an oversight, even though Palmyra would probably not have fallen if Obama had given the order.
The U.S. president didn’t do that because he is still stuck in the fantasy-land of an American-trained “third force” that will defeat both Islamic State and the Assad regime in a couple of years’ time. Saving the Syrian regime is a deeply unattractive choice, because it is a brutally repressive dictatorship. Its only redeeming virtues are that it is not genocidal, and does not threaten all of its neighbours.
Obama may have as little as a couple of months to come to terms with reality and make a decision. Waiting until the Syrian regime is already falling to intervene is not a good option; decision time is now. His reluctance to decide is entirely understandable, but rescuing Assad is the least bad option.