ISIS has, for a while now, had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. Though the Sunni group is ostensibly committed to his downfall, it has also served his interests by dividing the rebel movement, fighting against more moderate groups, and scaring off foreign supporters of the opposition, so he has to a large extent refrained from attacking it, allowing it to consolidate control in eastern Syria.
That strategy now appears to be coming back to bite him. With ISIS gaining in Iraq, Iraqi Shiite militias—who have provided crucial support to Assad—are now heading home to fight in their own country. This could put more strain on both Assad’s own forces and the Hezbollah fighters supporting him.
With their ISIS rivals focusing on Iraq and pro-Assad forces at least somewhat defeated, it seems like this could be a moment of opportunity for other non-ISIS rebel groups. This also depends on whether or not their longtime backers in the Gulf are scared off by the chaos.
In any event, the events in Iraq do seem to have changed the regime’s strategy. The Christian Science Monitor’s Nicholas Blanford notes that over the weekend “the Syrian Air Force staged its first major attacks on ISIS strongholds in the provinces of Raqqa and Hasakeh.” He quotes the Atlantic Council’s Frederic Hof, who suggests that while the group once served a purpose for Assad, ISIS’s “shelf life in Syria has expired.”
Among the most unfortunate of the bizarre and contradictory entangling alliances created by the Iraq crisis is that the United States is considering using military force to defend a government that has backed Assad, working in tacit cooperation not only with Iran but with militias that have fought on his behalf.
In the last few days, the Syrian government has been doing its best to make this option less appealing. This week Syrian army helicopters dropped barrel bombs—the regime’s non-chemical weapon of choice—on a refugee camp near the Jordanian border, killing 20 people, mostly women and children. The Organization for the Prohibition for Chemical Weapons also released a preliminary report this week saying that available data suggests the government has been using chlorine gas against civilians in a “systematic manner” since agreeing to turn over its chemical weapons stockpiles.
There aren’t a lot of good guys to be found in this war.