The War on ISIS: Views From Syrian Activists and Intellectuals

Free Syrian Army fighters, Aleppo, July 2013 (Dona_Bozzi / Shutterstock)

Conspicuously absent from the debate about ISIS and U.S. intervention—both in the mainstream and in the leftosphere—are Syrian voices. ISIS and U.S. officialdom occupy center stage, leaving the perspectives of Syrian civil society activists and writers out of the equation. While hardly surprising, this omission is troubling.

In an attempt to remedy this imbalance, I asked several Syrians—longtime activists and intellectuals from a range of backgrounds, including Kurdish, Palestinian, and Assyrian Christian—what they think about the ISIS crisis and Western intervention. Here are their responses.

Three Monsters

I am ambivalent about a Western attack against ISIS.

On the one hand, I would like to see this thuggish gang wiped from the face of the earth. ISIS is a criminal organization that has killed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis while leaving intact another criminal organization—the Assad regime—that is responsible for the deaths of close to 200,000 people. ISIS has destroyed the cause of the Syrian revolution as much as the Assad regime has destroyed our country and society.

On the other hand, an attack against ISIS will send a message to many Syrians (and Iraqis and other Arabs) that this intervention isn’t about seeking justice for heinous crimes, but is rather an attack against those who challenged Western powers. This will lead to more resentment against and suspicion of the outside world, which is the very nihilist mood on which ISIS capitalizes and profits.

Western powers could have avoided this had they helped the Syrian resistance in its battle against the fascist Assad regime. The right thing to do, ethically and politically, is to build a coalition against both ISIS and the Assad regime, and to help Syrians bring about significant changes in their country’s political environment.

Let me finally say that I am very skeptical of the plans and intentions of the American administration. ISIS is the terrible outcome of our monstrous regimes and the West’s role in the region for decades, as much as it is the result of grave illnesses within Islam. Three monsters are treading on Syria’s exhausted body.

—Yassin al-Haj Saleh, one of the leading writers and intellectual figures of the Syrian uprising, imprisoned from 1980 to 1996 for left-wing activities, now living in exile in Istanbul (see this interview with him for more)

Symptoms and Causes

Any attempt to uproot or crush ISIS will be of no avail if it is undertaken without adequate analysis of the reasons for the group’s rise. The widespread feelings among Syrians of indignation and betrayal by the international community for the better part of the last four years will not be an easy matter to deal with, and will only be heightened if the international community does not commit to a serious initiative beyond sloganeering.

Fighting against ISIS without stopping the Assad regime’s massacres would have serious ramifications. Living under daily bombardment and shelling have led some Syrians to see ISIS, despite its barbarity, as a savior and avenger on their behalf against a murderous regime. These are sensitive matters. Neglecting them will only help ISIS spread further. Any attempt to deal with symptoms without serious considerations of the causes will lead to more dangerous complications. You can’t remove a malignant tumor without dealing with and disinfecting the whole context and resolving the problem. Otherwise you can end up with a bigger tumor, leading to complete loss of control over the situation.

—Iyas Kadouni, former director of the Centre for Civil Society and Democracy in the city of Idlib, former member of the Revolutionary Council in the city of Saraqib, pursued both by ISIS and by the Assad regime, now living in exile in Brussels

Alternatives to Military Intervention

As a Syrian from a Christian background who has many years of experience with different Syrian opposition groups, I believe military intervention against ISIS will only lead to the creation of more extremism. 

Before starting with a military solution, why not explore political, economic, and social solutions? Why did it take the West so long to embargo the oil produced by ISIS? Why did the West turn a blind eye to the flood of jihadists entering Syria through Turkey? Why no real pressure on Gulf countries for their official and unofficial massive support of different nefarious armed groups? Why did the “Friends of Syria” fail to provide Raqqa—the first liberated area in the country—with any support for the local community, the civil society organizations, and the emerging local council, despite all the calls to do so?

—Rasha Qass Yousef, member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and the Syrian Democratic Forum, a co-founder of the Haquna Movement, a civil resistance group in the city of Raqqa that campaigned against both the Assad regime and the armed groups who seized the city, including ISIS

Arm the Rebels and Smash ISIS

I strongly support U.S./NATO air strikes against ISIS, which has committed, and continues to commit, horrifying atrocities against civilians in Syria and Iraq, and I urge the international community to arm the Syrian rebels and provide them with the necessary means to take down ISIS, which has shown nothing but brutality against the Syrian people. This course of action will advance the cause of the Syrian revolution, which started as a struggle for freedom and dignity for the Syrian people.

But attacking ISIS without taking down the Assad regime’s air force would invite problems, as the regime can be expected to strike the Syrian rebels during their battles with ISIS, as it has done previously. The Assad regime is the source of extremism and violence in Syria. Any move against ISIS must be followed by effective steps toward a political transition beyond Assad.

—Kassem Eid, a.k.a. Qusai Zakarya, Syrian-Palestinian activist and chemical weapons attack survivor who launched a hunger strike in November to protest the starvation sieges of cities throughout Syria and demand that humanitarian agencies be allowed unfettered access into these besieged areas

Who Fueled ISIS’s Rise?

My support for the Syrian revolution is unconditional and for that reason I am opposed to the U.S. intervention. The United States and its regional allies have done everything to undermine the Syrian revolution. Most importantly they have done so by supporting the Syrian National Coalition against the grassroots movements. U.S. allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar initially backed Assad and later funded and equipped the most reactionary forces in the opposition. These same powers (plus Iraq) are now forming a coalition to fight ISIS. But these countries played a major role, directly and indirectly, in making ISIS a regional power. The United States and Saudi Arabia were instrumental in the creation and funding of global jihadism since the 1980s to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq led to the emergence of al Qaeda in Iraq. Qatar is helping Jabhat al-Nusra while Turkey was, until recently, allowing ISIS to operate freely and cross its borders unchecked.

The U.S. intervention in Syria (and Iraq) will kill many innocent civilians. It will also fulfill ISIS’s wish to become the primary anti-American force in the region and thereby help the terrorist organization recruit more fighters. The beheading of the two U.S. citizens by ISIS was intended to generate the reaction it is now getting from the United States. Finally, Assad played a crucial role in strengthening ISIS and using it against revolutionary forces. The irony of all this is that the United States is asking the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS but not use American weapons against the Assad regime.

Yasser Munif, professor of sociology at Emerson College and co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution

Remove One of the Syrian Revolution’s Key Obstacles

For me there is no simple answer. On the most elementary level, I am inclined to favor U.S./EU/NATO intervention against ISIS. Attacking ISIS would remove one of the Syrian revolution’s key obstacles, and this would leave the Assad regime more vulnerable. But I believe it is wishful thinking to expect any meaningful intervention that would give us such ideal outcomes. I think the future is gloomier than this. Despite all the political rhetoric on Syria from the White House, the U.S. administration is deadlocked, much as it has been since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Obama’s strategy of “seduce and abandon” has been used consistently over the last three years to deflect criticism about U.S. intervention in the Middle East. There has been no appetite to intervene in any real way to come to the aid of Syrian rebels. Either way, it is too little, too late.

Confronting ISIS, while crucial, is meaningless without at least two things: urgent and actual support for whatever remains of the secular and democratic forces within the Free Syrian Army, and sustained international political and economic pressure on the Assad regime. ISIS plays the role of a deus ex machina in the Assad regime’s version of reality, resolving the seemingly unsolvable problem that the regime has faced since Syrian protestors demanded its downfall: that of restoring its political legitimacy and international credentials. It ensures the regime’s survival and confirms the narrative that Assad’s forces are embroiled in a bitter fight against Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Moreover, the present situation enables the regime to paint itself as an indispensible partner in the fight against terrorism, which is why commentators like The Nation’s Bob Dreyfuss will continue to argue that “one key to solving the ISIS crisis is hunkered down in the presidential palace in Damascus, and his name is Bashar al-Assad.”

Firas Massouh, doctoral student at the University of Melbourne in Australia and author of several essays on the Syrian uprising, including “Left Out? The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Left

Too Little, Too Late?

From a policy standpoint, Obama’s plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels would have been more effective if implemented over two years ago, when Syrian opposition forces were less depleted. Syrian activists must welcome Obama’s plan with a sense of trepidation, because we were left in the lurch in August 2013 after the chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs. We waited for the retaliation against Assad that never came, despite assurances from the administration that it was imminent. Obama’s backtracking emboldened Assad, paving the way for the deaths of tens of thousands more Syrians. Now we are playing the waiting game again. When will the weapons arrive? And will they effectively change the balance of power on the ground? Our objective now has to include the downfall of both Assad and ISIS. Whether Obama’s plan will help achieve both remains to be seen.

Rasha Othman, Syrian-American activist based in Washington, one of the key organizers of the International Solidarity Hunger Strike for Syria

No Shortcuts

Violence will only yield more violence. You can’t put out fire with gas. The U.S. attack on ISIS will only contribute to its proliferation. The international community and the United States have played a role in creating ISIS. They rely on hegemony rather than spearheading democracy, as they claim. There is a conspicuous lack of ethics in dealing with various global issues. For example, the Syrian issue got lost in the corridors of the UN for years, due to double standards in dealing with humanitarian crises. But suddenly the Iraqi case has taken center stage—it did so in a matter of days and without evening going through UN channels—due to geostrategic interests.

The solution lies in dealing with these matters on a consistent humanitarian and humanist basis and seeing people as fellow human beings and not as strange citizen of other lands, and to start seriously viewing our common and intertwined interests on the planet. Concretely this could be achieved by supporting civil resistance movements and other institutions and organizations that are helping spread education and awareness. Empowering local people and NGOs, particularly investing now in the millions of refugees, would represent an alternative path forward. There is no short cut to heaven.

Khorshid Mohammad, Syrian-Kurdish co-founder of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and neonatologist at Alberta Health Services , University of Calgary, Canada

Special thanks to Afra Jalabi, a Syrian activist and writer in Montreal, for connecting me with several of the people I interviewed for this article. She is active in the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and serves on the Executive Committee of The Day After project, an international working group of Syrians representing a large spectrum of the country’s opposition engaged in an independent transition-planning dialogue. —Danny Postel


Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. His books include The Syria Dilemma and The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. He blogs for Critical Inquiry and the Huffington Post and is a co-editor of PULSE.

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