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The problem at the heart of ISIS — and why the world seems unable to solve it

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

If you look at a map of ISIS's territory over the past year, it seems to tell a promising story. The group has lost "something like 25 percent of their territory" since just last summer, according to Brookings scholar William McCants. In Iraq, it's lost the city of Tikrit and appears on the verge of losing Ramadi. In Syria, US-backed Kurdish groups have retaken much of the Turkish border and are moving nearer to Raqqa, the group's headquarters.

"You look back to the past two months," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told my colleague Zack Beauchamp, "and it's just two month of steady losses."

Yet even as it is losing territory — and maybe even because of this — ISIS has become more dangerous to the world. It killed 27 in Kuwait City, 38 in Sousse, 43 in Beirut, and 224 in the air over Sinai, all in the months before killing 130 in Paris. Even if ISIS loses its "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq, it seems all but certain it will revert to what it was before, when it was known as al-Qaeda in Iraq: an insurgency and terrorist group. In that incarnation, it killed thousands and helped turn the US-led invasion of Iraq into a civil war.

ISIS's weaknesses are numerous. It has deliberately made an enemy of every nation on Earth. It is a movement widely reviled by even the Sunni Muslims it purports to represent. It's funded by little more than bank robbery and extortion. Yet despite all this, ISIS is a problem that the world seems unable to solve. Why?

When you ask experts and policymakers why this is, why the ISIS problem seems so difficult, they'll give you many answers. They'll discuss extremism and its pernicious roots, the anger and disillusion in the Mideast and among some Muslim in Europe, the political problems in Baghdad, the nefarious role of Iran or Saudi Arabia or Turkey, America's invasion of Iraq, America's inaction on Syria, and so on.

But whether the person you're talking to is a Democrat or Republican, a policymaker or an academic, an American or a non-American, there is one problem they will almost always cite as the most important and the most difficult, the single biggest barrier to solving ISIS and the single biggest reason that has not yet and might not happen.

That problem is Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. He, you hear over and over, is both the biggest and most difficult component of the ISIS problem. Though he calls himself ISIS's enemy, and though the two are nominally at war, he is the single greatest reason that the group will remain a threat, in one form or another, for some time. As long as Assad is around, ISIS may well be unbeatable. But the Assad problem is not much easier to solve, and may be near impossible.

How Bashar al-Assad helped create ISIS

A Western recruit appears in an ISIS propaganda video.

ISIS has many fathers — America's Iraq invasion and Saudi Arabia's long-running cultivation of extremism especially — but none whose role was quite so deliberate as Assad's regime in Syria.

Assad did not specifically construct the Islamic State, nor does he appear to exercise any control over the group, which after all loathes Assad and explicitly seeks a genocide against his Alawite religious sect. But a long trail of evidence suggests that he did deliberately and consciously cultivate the Sunni jihadist movement in both Syria and Iraq. Many analysts believe that Assad allowed ISIS to rise in Syria, and now tolerates its presence, as an insurance policy to keep the world from pushing him out.

In 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq, Assad's inner circle feared that they were next and in response, according to the scholar Peter Neumann, "took the view that jihad could be nurtured and manipulated to serve the Syrian government’s aims." His intelligence services helped establish a pipeline that quickly became, Neumann writes, "the principal point of entry for foreign jihadists hoping to join the Iraqi insurgency." This included a large number of recruits to the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later became ISIS.

Within a few years, it became clear that the US would not invade Syria and that the Americans had suffered for the Iraq invasion. Syria scaled back its pipeline and returned to treating jihadists as enemies of the state.

Nearly a decade later, in 2011, when Arab Spring protesters rose up in Syria, Assad initially responded with ruthless and often indiscriminate violence against civilians. But it didn't work: Rather than dispelling the protesters, it inspired a number of Syrian soldiers to defect and join them, turning the uprising into a civil war.

In March through October 2011, Assad issued amnesties for large numbers of jihadists locked up in Syrian prisoners. These jihadists, newly released, naturally joined the opposition. Assad had been claiming since the uprising began that it was not a legitimate democratic movement but rather an al-Qaeda conspiracy. Now he would try to make that true.

"The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades," a former Syrian intelligence officer told the Abu Dhabi newspaper the National in 2014.

Assad's goal was more than just to legitimize his own use of devastating military force. He had seen the West intervene against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya's civil war. He sought to prevent the same in his own country by seeding the opposition with extremists, making them too toxic for the West support — perhaps even forcing the world to see him as the only viable alternative to al-Qaeda.

By 2013, two years into Syria's civil war, large parts of the country had been destroyed. As Assad stepped up his efforts, using chemical weapons and other instruments of mass terror against civilians, the world was finding it harder not to intervene against him. The US authorized a CIA program to support some rebel groups and, that fall, came close to bombing Assad-linked targets in Syria.

Assad found his salvation in a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which had grown out of al-Qaeda in Iraq but was now in Syria, where it was fighting openly with al-Qaeda's forces there. In early 2014, ISIS and al-Qaeda formally split, and ISIS focused not on fighting Assad but on fighting other rebel groups for control of their territory. The Syrian conflict became a three-sided war. Assad tolerated ISIS, focusing instead on the rebels who were their mutual enemies and thus helping ISIS to grow in strength. ISIS's rise served Assad in two ways: It squeezed the anti-Assad rebels, and it sharpened the war as a choice between Assad and terrorists.

But when it comes to the world's struggle to defeat ISIS, there is another way in which Assad is part of the problem, and in many ways is a much greater hurdle than even his support for such groups.

As long as the Assad problem remains, defeating ISIS may be impossible

Syrian rebel mourns
A Syrian rebel mourns the death of a comrade
(John Cantlie/Getty Images)

When the Pentagon launched its short-lived $500 million program in 2014 to train and arm Syrian rebels, it imposed a restriction that the longer-running CIA program did not: It would only back rebels who fought ISIS, and not Assad. The program fizzled out almost immediately; few rebels joined, and those who did had a bad habit of surrendering their weapons to other groups.

The lesson the US learned was that Syria's rebels were on the battlefield to fight Assad, not to fight ISIS. And, more crucially, that there is no real force in Syria that is interested in completely overtaking the group.1

Kurdish groups in Syria are the one exception, but with a big caveat. Syrian Kurds have demonstrated tremendous success, with heavy US support, in retaking Kurdish territory from ISIS. But most of ISIS's territory is in Arab-majority parts of Syria. It's not clear that Kurdish fighters are willing to stray from their own territory to fight ISIS. And perhaps more important, it's doubtful that Kurdish groups could effectively seize and hold Arab-majority territory. In other words, it has to be an Arab force that dislodges ISIS from the Arab-majority territory that it mostly holds.

It's not that Syrian rebels or anyone else likes ISIS; they are at active war with the group. Rather, it's that Syria's rebels are focused primarily on fighting Assad, and Assad the rebels. For both of them, ISIS is a distraction. The war between Assad and the rebels is a gift to ISIS, because it pits the groups who would otherwise most threaten ISIS against one another and distracts them from fighting ISIS. The Assad-rebel war means there is no viable ground force that can take ISIS's Syrian territory away from it.

Syria's rebel groups, which include large numbers of Syrian volunteers and defected Syrian soldiers, have made very clear that they can never accept Assad's continued rule. It's not just that they hate and oppose him for deliberately destroying their communities with mass atrocities against civilians. It is also that Assad's rule has lost legitimacy over Syria's Sunni majority. When people say that Assad cannot rule Syria, that's not an opinion about his leadership — it's a fact. His continued presence as the country's leader guarantees continued war.

Because Assad is the primary driver of the civil war, and because the civil war sustains ISIS, then as long as Assad remains, so will ISIS. No amount of anti-ISIS bombing campaigns or Kurdish assaults will change this.

The only thing that can defeat ISIS is a Syrian peace deal

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, left, talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

This does not mean that the solution to ISIS is to remove Assad by force, to topple his regime outright. In fact, this would almost certainly make the problem far worse.

Syrians are already suffering mass displacement and, with state services in many places nonexistent, face extreme poverty, disease outbreaks, and hunger. They cannot endure the collapse of what little of the state remains. In the majority of the country where Assad has lost control, territory is divided among many different rebel groups. Were Assad to fall, they would lose their common enemy and could turn on one another. In such conditions, ISIS would almost certainly come out ahead.

Many warn that, should Syria's government collapse, it would follow Libya's path to chaos and infighting. But this may actually understate the problem. It's more likely, perhaps, that Syria would look like Afghanistan in the 1990s, when the collapse of the pro-Soviet government led to years of civil war among rebel groups, many of whom became more like warlords, and provided the conditions for the rise of the Taliban.

This is why the US and other powers have pushed to remove Assad peacefully, in a negotiated peace deal between the government and the rebels. This would allow the state institutions to stay in place, averting a total implosion, while also removing the person who is most driving the war.

The broad contours of such a peace deal are not hard to foresee: It would finally give Syria's Sunni majority a say in their country's governance, while also guaranteeing a continued role and basic security for the religious and ethnic minorities who see Assad as their protectors. Jihadist rebels would be excluded but others granted amnesties. Assad would step down, but enough of the state would remain to see through a transition.

This — a peace deal — would be the only viable way to end the Assad-rebels war and thus defeat ISIS by ending the war that sustains it and by freeing up regime and rebel forces to turn against the group.

Why the Assad problem is so hard to solve

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seen on a poster in Baghdad.

There is one very important reason a peace deal would be so difficult: Even if rebel groups and the Assad regime decided today that they could accept a deal, and could find theoretically agreeable terms, it wouldn't end the war. The Syrian conflict is more than just a civil war at this point: It is a proxy war, with heavy involvement from several outside countries. These countries, whether we like it or not, have veto power on ending the war.

The "no" votes come from Russia and Iran, Assad's two foreign backers, who are deeply involved in the war and who would thus need to agree to any peace deal in order for it to work. It is just not clear that they would be willing to part with him.

It is not the case that Russian and Iranian leaders care especially about Assad or what happens to him. Moscow and Tehran are not committing hundreds of their own to fight in Syria as some sort of gift to their buddy Bashar. Rather, they're fighting in Syria to protect their national interests. They believe that keeping Assad in power is necessary to protecting those interests.

Iran, an officially Shia nation, does not support Assad so much out of religious comity — while Alawites consider themselves Shia, many Shia consider them heretics — as out of strategic interests that happen to line up with sectarianism. Since at least the early 2000s, Iran has been in a growing struggle for regional influence with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Sunni states. While it was never inevitable that the Middle East would come to split along Sunni-Shia lines, that is its status today.

As a result, Iran believes that it needs an Alawite government in Syria to retain its influence there, for which it gets not just a strategically placed ally against the Sunni powers but also a buffer against Israel and a land route by which to arm anti-Israel groups in Lebanon and Gaza.

Iran thus fears, with good reason, that if Assad falls, he will be replaced by a Sunni government (Syria, after all, is mostly Sunni) that will align with the other Sunni states. Iran would not just lose a crucial ally, it would likely gain yet another adversary in the region. That is why it is fighting so hard to keep him lodged in power, sending arms, money, and a force that is estimated in the thousands. Iran is exerting so much control over the Syrian government that several reports have suggested Assad invited Russia to intervene in Syria this fall to counter Tehran's growing influence.

It is possible to imagine a scenario in which Iran might accept Assad's departure, as long as Tehran had a guarantee that it would maintain its strategic interests in Syria. But Iran can only know that for sure if Syria's government remains sectarian and Alawite-led. That would mean merely changing the face of the regime without changing its character. And it would likely require denying Syrians the right to democratically elect their own government. That would surely be unacceptable to the opposition, and it's hard to imagine the rebels putting down their arms in such a scenario.

Syria's demographics make this difficult: The population is about three-quarters Sunni. It's difficult to imagine an agreement that would satisfy Sunnis that the era of sectarian rule was over, while sufficiently empowering Alawites as to satisfy Iran that its interests would be protected.

Russia is easier. It, too, is in Syria in large part to protect its interests there (as well as to further other goals). That means a Syrian government that is pro-Moscow and that will allow Russia to keep its military bases there — its last remaining ally outside of the former Soviet sphere. Unlike Iran, though, Russia does not need the Syrian government to be sectarian and minority-rule in order for it to get what it wants. There is no reason a Sunni-led Syria could not maintain military basing deals with Russia.

It's not going to be easy for Moscow to agree to full elections and democracy in Syria, knowing that many Syrians identify Russia as aligned with the hated Assad regime and given that Russia is currently bombing Syrian rebels. Still, it is not impossible to imagine the opposition agreeing to a peace deal that grants Russia certain concessions, or promising that Alawites will retain senior defense positions, thus allowing Russia to keep its contacts in the Syrian military.

Some in the US government believe, for this reason, that Moscow isn't just bluffing when it says that it would accept Assad's departure. And they believe, with reason, that Moscow could give in on the larger and more important question of retaining Alawite minority rule. But even if Iran gives up Assad — which it currently has shown no sign of seriously considering — there is every reason to believe that it would insist on replacing him with someone else just like him.

In other words, if the biggest hurdle to defeating ISIS is Assad, then the biggest hurdle to removing Assad is Iran. The country has shown it's willing to absorb huge losses to protest its ally in Damascus. It's just not clear how or when Iran would come around to a peace deal for Syria. And until it does, both Assad and thus ISIS may well remain unsolvable problems.

The world might not have a solution to the Assad problem

Young Syrians burn posters of Bashar al-Assad in a 2012 demonstration.
John Cantlie/Getty

When you talk to people in the Obama administration about this, they understand that bombing ISIS isn't going to solve it; they see the Assad problem and what it will take to resolve very clearly.

But when you ask what it will take to bring around Russia and Iran to accepting such a peace deal — or at least prevent them from blocking it — a common answer is that these countries will come to that position on their own. As fighting drags on and they see that they're suffering for an unwinnable war and an ally who's costing more than he's worth, they'll resign themselves to a peace deal.

And maybe they're right, but no one can say how long this would take, and it puts the outcome in Iranian and Russian hands. If history is any example, military powers remain in quagmires — the US in Iraq or Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan — long after it's become counterproductive.

Republican presidential candidates and conservative think tanks, for this reason, advocate putting more pressure on Moscow and Tehran to force them to accept a Syria peace deal. But this "pressure" is often vague or mostly rhetorical; it's difficult to imagine Russia significantly changing its strategy because the president pounded the lectern a few times. A greater US military presence in Syria would, if anything, encourage more Iranian involvement, allowing hard-liners in Tehran to sell the war as a necessary fight against American imperialism and risking a repeat of the Iraq War, where Iran supported Shia insurgent groups so as to bog down the US.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the Assad problem. His regime can't hold on forever, even with Iranian and Russian support. Assad's opponents in the region — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey — are steaming ahead on supporting the rebels and pushing them to defeat Assad outright. The more time passes, the more likely that Assad's regime implodes catastrophically. If that happens, the world will lose its best chance at peacefully ending Syria's war so that it can finally take down ISIS, and instead we will be faced with a Syria that is far more hospitable to ISIS and where the group will be far more difficult to defeat.

VIDEO: The war in Syria, explained