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Syria expected to call for strategic alliance against ISIL

United Nations speech comes as president Bashar Al Assad's allies Iran, Russia and Iraq have all campaigned to rehabilitate the dictator's image at the General Assembly in New York as a moderate that the US-led coalition should coordinate with in its fight against terror.
A formation of US navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq as part of US-led coalition airstrikes on ISIL and other targets in Syria. Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel / US air force / AP Photo
A formation of US navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq as part of US-led coalition airstrikes on ISIL and other targets in Syria. Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel / US air force / AP Photo

NEW YORK // A year ago, Bashar Al Assad had barely escaped US airstrikes after being widely accused of gassing civilians.

Now, with the US actually bombing Syria – targeting extremist rebels and leaving the regime in peace – the Syrian foreign minister is likely to make a pitch to the international community that it should ally with Damascus in the fight against a common foe, ISIL.

The speech comes as Syria’s allies Iran, Russia and Iraq have all campaigned to rehabilitate Mr Al Assad’s image at the United Nations General Assembly as a moderate that the US-led coalition should coordinate with in its fight against the group.

The western and Arab countries that support Syria’s opposition, however, insist that they are not taking the obvious bait and are still committed to training and equipping thousands of rebels who would fill the power vacuum left by ISIL, and a political process that sees Mr Al Assad step down.

But some of the most powerful US-supported rebel groups that Barack Obama promised to build up over the next year signed a declaration condemning the airstrikes that targeted Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra, and demanded they also strike the regime.

Mr Al Assad will attempt to exploit this fissure — just at the moment signs of anger among his supporters are increasing at his handling of the war — and spin a narrative that he is allying with the coalition against ISIL and that only his forces can retake and hold its territory. “The US military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals, in a war on terrorism inside Syria,” a Syrian official said in an interview with the pro-Damascus Al Watan newspaper.

At the General Assembly, Syria’s allies have all worked to change Mr Al Assad’s status as an international outcast, including Iraq’s new prime minister, Haidar Al Abadi, who says he works closely on counterterrorism with Mr Al Assad, and who has acted as an intermediary between Damascus and Washington.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in his UN address, said that the leaders of Iraq and Syria were both moderates whom the West should work with.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, said: “The struggle against terrorists in the territory of Syria should be structured in cooperation with the Syrian government, which clearly stated its readiness to join it.”

This message will likely be at the heart of Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Moualem’s address on Monday, as he pleads Syria’s case.

US officials have said categorically that they will not work with Mr Al Assad and are committed to a political transition, but ISIL must be defeated before that process can start.

A senior state department official said last week that the ISIL threat had even brought together regional adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia, and that the theme of a meeting between US officials and Arab counterparts in New York was to “think about how to begin to de-escalate some of these conflicts”.

But creating the grounds for a grand compromise will also entail the incredibly complex task of strengthening the opposition in Syria, both politically and militarily, so that it can be a unified force that can retake ISIL territory and provide services there – a process that could take years.

As uncertainty obscures a clear path forward in Syria, its representative will likely tell the UN what many countries won’t want to hear, but which for now may be de facto truth: you are our allies in this fight.

tkhan@thenational.ae

Updated: September 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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