Martin Parsons is an author and writer on current affairs and international relations.
Walking along a jungle path, you see a group of small children being threatened by a menacing hyena behind and hungry lions in front – which do you tackle first?
That, broadly speaking, was the conundrum faced by the West when Assad yet again used chemical weapons on his own people. But Assad is only the hyena, the lions are ISIS and other jihadist groups, who have been deliberately committing what US Secretary of State John Kerry called ‘genocide’ against religious minorities such as Yazidis and Christians.
The problem that the world faced when Assad yet again unleashed chemical weapons was a legacy of the Obama administration. This had not only failed to take any effective action over Assad’s previous use of chemical weapons, it had also doggedly refused to take any effective action against any of the jihadist groups in Syria except ISIS, even though some were specifically targeting religious minorities. In fact, Obama’s policy managed to empower both the jihadists and the Syrian regime.
On the very day in 2013 that the US Congress voted on air strikes, two jihadist groups – Ahrar al Sham and the al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate – attacked the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula north east of Damascus and ordered the Christians to convert to Islam or be beheaded. At the time, Middle Eastern media suggested it was a direct response to the jihadists feeling emboldened by the threatened US attack on the regime.
When Obama subsequently backed down – not least due to the prevarications of the British parliament, the Assad regime also felt emboldened. Not only that, Obama’s inaction emboldened other aggressors around the world, including Russia, which annexed Crimea six months later.
When the new US administration conducted its recent air strikes, the first reaction was repeated – jihadists were elated. Ahrar al Sham put out a statement welcoming the US air strikes, while Jaysh al Islam, who led the rebel side at the recent Russian brokered peace talks, called on the US to hit all 26 of Assad’s airbases.
These two groups illustrate the problem with Obama’s Syria’s policy, which focused almost exclusively on Assad and ISIS, and treated groups like Ahrar al Sham and Jaysh al Islam as if they were fighting for freedom and democracy. The Obama administration refused to put either group on its list of terrorist organisations and was even reported to be supporting them. Just to be clear what sort of groups these are, Ahrar al Sham, which carried out the attack on Christians in Maaloula, has also carried out massacres of Alawites and was originally part of ISIS until its leaders fell out. Jaysh al Islam has also carried out war crimes, including using 100 Syrian families in cages as human shields.
Even more disturbing are the parallels with Somalia. Out of the chaos there, the Union of Islamic Courts was formed, from which al Shabaab emerged which now controls the southern part of Somalia. From there it carries out genocidal attacks on civilians in countries such as Kenya. Jaysh al Islam is following this pattern in Syria. In 2014, it set up the Unified Judiciary Council, a network of courts enforcing strict shari’a and has used force against anyone who challenges their authority.
In other words, if the Assad regime falls (which of course is not necessarily the same as Assad himself being removed), then apart from the Kurdish peshmerga in the north, much of the rest of country will be governed by jihadist groups whose idea of government, far from being freedom and democracy, is actually not that different from ISIS’s. If so, Syria will become like Somalia – not only a failed state, but a divided state, with at least half controlled by radical jihadist groups.
So, where do we go from here? Well, having hit Assad to send a message on using chemical weapons, it is essential that the western world focuses strongly on disempowering the jihadists – not just ISIS, but all the others as well. The Obama administration’s refusal to list jihadist groups as terrorist organisations maintained a blatant fiction that these groups were somehow wanting to replace Assad with democracy.
That is where foreign policy now needs to go. Neither Ahrar al Sham or Jaysh al Islam are on the UK, EU or UN lists of proscribed organisations. That action, and far more specific support for minorities fleeing the genocide, is urgently needed. We have to hit the lions, not just the hyena. The West has to send out a strong signal when chemical weapons are used, but by far the greatest long term threat to both Syria and the wider region and its peoples is the de facto creation of a jihadist state, which, like al Shabaab in Somalia, will launch attacks on civilians in neighbouring countries.