Assad the Cornerstone That Must Be Removed Before the Edifice of the Islamic State Collapses

Pictured: a Russian Tu-160 Blackjack, one of the planes Russia is using to bomb the Islamic State. (Photo: Poder Aereo)

Pictured: a Russian Tu-160 Blackjack, one of the planes Russia is using to bomb the Islamic State. (Photo: Poder Aereo)

When Russia sent jets and fighters to Syria to shore up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, it wasn’t principally targeting the Islamic State, but the other rebel forces. Thus, it seemed counterproductive on the part of the Islamic State to plant a bomb on Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 and re-direct the bulk of Russia’s attention to it. In fact, the Islamic State bit off way more than it could chew. At the Daily Beast, David Axe reported:

The Russian air force just pulled off one of the biggest and most complex heavy bomber missions in modern history—sending no fewer than 25 Backfire, Bear, and Blackjack bombers on a coordinated, long-range air raid against alleged ISIS forces in Syria.

The Tuesday mission, which launched under the cover of darkness from a base in Ossetia in southern Russia, signaled a significant escalation of Moscow’s air war in Syria—and heralded the rebirth of Russian heavy bomber squadrons that once had withered from a lack of funding.

Though, writes Axe, the attack wasn’t directed at just the Islamic State.

Russia’s bomber raid was certainly impressive, and has propaganda value in addition to bolstering Moscow’s operations in Syria. When 25 of the planet’s most powerful warplanes attack at the same time, it’s more than a mere air raid. It’s a statement to the whole world.

Read: the United States and NATO. Bombing alone seldom wins a war — especially when the enemy combatants, the Islamic State fighters in this case, hide among the population, as they did when they caught wind of the bombing. Furthermore, writes Tim Arango in the New York Times, some experts believe that the Islamic State cannot be defeated until Assad is removed from power.

[An] option is for the United States to prioritize the removal of Mr. Assad, whose military has been responsible for far more carnage in Syria than the Islamic State. As long as Mr. Assad is in power, it will be difficult to get many Sunni rebels to help in the fight against the group.

“There is probably no solution to ISIS until there is a solution to Assad,” said J. M. Berger, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a co-author of the book “ISIS: The State of Terror.” “That is the factor that paralyzes everything else.”

Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, argued that Western powers needed to start identifying Mr. Assad’s government as part of the problem, because its brutality and sectarianism have allowed the Islamic State to thrive.

“Assad is not a sideshow,” he said. “He is at the center of this massive dilemma.”

But …

… it would require a great deal of diplomatic heavy-lifting to persuade Mr. Assad’s two most important backers — the Russians and the Iranians — to agree to his removal.

Equally as important:

Nothing short of a sustained effort among Muslims to offer an alternative to extremist versions of the religion is needed, religious leaders say. “ISIS is the one that is saying, ‘We have something to offer you: a sense of purpose, a sense of fulfillment.’ That is what is missing,” said Imam Mohamed Magid, a spiritual leader in Virginia.

“We need to have a strong religious identity that calls people to action, but action in a way that is constructive, not destructive, and promotes life, not death,” he said.

Meanwhile, writes Arango, “Eradicating the group militarily from the territory it controls could come with another cost.”

“Thousands of angry young men who were manning checkpoints and policing the streets of I.S. will be freed up to commit terrorism instead,” said Mr. Berger, the Brookings scholar. “The result will probably be a wave of terrorism the likes of which the world has never seen.”

Everybody is forgetting that part.