The Syrian Air Force bombed ISIS positions around Aleppo yesterday, where moderate rebels have been nearly encircled by regime forces and ISIS massing outside. The attack suggests Assad may be looking ahead to the next round, one in which he turns on ISIS in full force. The AP reports:
As the U.S. military strikes the Islamic State group in Iraq, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have significantly stepped up their own campaign against militant strongholds in Syria, carrying out dozens of airstrikes against the group’s headquarters in the past two days.While the government in Damascus has long turned a blind eye to the Islamic State’s expansion in Syria — in some cases even facilitating its offensive against mainstream rebels — the group’s rapid march on towns and villages in northern and eastern Syria is now threatening to overturn recent gains by government forces. […]On Monday, Islamic State fighters were closing in on the last government-held army base in the northeastern Raqqa province, the Tabqa air base, prompting at least 16 Syrian government airstrikes in the area in an attempt to halt their advance.
Experts cited by the AP speculated that there were three reasons the regime would pivot from encircling the rebels to assailing ISIS. Firstly, it needs to protect its gains around Aleppo, so that it doesn’t lose its newly regained prize to ISIS. Secondly, there is pressure building from the ground up, as the regime’s troops grow more and more eager to avenge their comrades who have been killed, beheaded, and crucified by ISIS.Finally, the regime probably wishes to take advantage of a rare opportunity for decent publicity, as it will be attacking the same enemy that the U.S. is currently bombing in Iraq. Because of this, experts are divided over whether the attack constituted a serious change of pace for the regime or merely a feint for PR purposes.Portraying himself as the last hope against the ISIS radicals, rather than the oppressor of the moderates, may be Assad’s best chance of ever regaining international acceptance, and thus, provided he can win militarily, regime security. As Syrian expert Aron Lund told the AP, “Assad would surely love to regain international acceptance via a ‘war on terror’ and maybe that is his long-term plan, in so far as he has one.”Meanwhile, ISIS is enjoying major uptick in recruiting as it becomes the last viable anti-Assad force, adding over 6,000 fighters in Syria last month. But whether or not ISIS faces off against the regime, the fate of the rebels within the city is likely sealed, as they are now surrounded by Assad’s forces.For the U.S., this means that, for the foreseeable future, we are left with only bad and worse options in Syria.