ISIS Convenient For Assad's Narrative On Civil War Syrian President Bashar Assad is in the fourth year of a civil war against ISIS and other rebel groups. But some say he's let ISIS flourish so it can overwhelm more moderate, Western-backed rebels.

ISIS Convenient For Assad's Narrative On Civil War

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Now we're going to take a look at the Syrian part of this complicated ISIS arena. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is in the fourth year of a civil war against ISIS and other rebel groups. But some say he's let ISIS flourish so it can overwhelm more moderate Western-backed rebels.

NPR's Deborah Amos covers the civil war and joins us now from southern Turkey near the Syrian border. And Deb, to start, help us understand - what is the relationship between Assad and ISIS?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: You know, for four years, President Assad's narrative has been consistent. What he maintains this is a conflict. It's a fight between the regime and terrorists backed by outside states. He dismisses a large part of the revolt, which is home grown and it wants a more inclusive government. We've been hearing a lot about that in Iraq. So ISIS is convenient for the regime - ignored by the regime, for the most part because it's important that this conflict offers a stark choice for them - ISIS or the regime.

But in fact, there is some credible reports of cooperation. For example, with the oil fields. When ISIS took over the eastern Syrian oil fields, they sold the stolen oil and still do through pipelines that still go into regime areas.

CORNISH: If the U.S. strikes ISIS and weakens it significantly, is this essentially good news for Assad? I mean, could his regime then reclaim lost territory?

AMOS: Well, the basic question is can airstrikes alone weaken ISIS in Syria? And there aren't many military analysts who think so. Some are suggesting a so-called tourniquet approach. So you start with Iraq, where there are established partners on the ground. There is the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting force, the Iraqi army, there are Sunni tribes there. The strategy isn't as clear-cut in Syria. ISIS is more established there. They are running a whole city of Raqqa in northeast Syria.

So even with a weakened ISIS, it's not likely that Assad can regain territory. He hasn't been able to defeat the rebels - and going on now for years, despite financial and military aid from Russia, Iran, these experienced fighters who are coming in from Lebanon. It's more likely that the Syrian moderate rebels will retake that territory, if ISIS is in fact weakened.

CORNISH: You know, despite all that, Assad is stronger than he was a year ago, right? When the Obama administration threatened strikes over the chemical weapons attack on a Damascus neighborhood. Does the Syrian president think he's winning now?

AMOS: Yes, he does. And you hear that from Syrian officials, who are convinced that the U.S. will eventually make some kind of deal with the regime, a partnership to go after ISIS. But it seems that that idea is losing currency in Washington. And Assad has his own problems with ISIS. They're stronger than he ever imagined. They took over key military bases a month ago in the North. They were parading Syrian soldiers in their underwear before they killed them. So he's lost some credibility among his core supporters as those videos became public.

You know, the defeat of ISIS is more than a military solution; it's got to be political. The administration articulates that idea in Iraq. It's the same idea in Syria, where a marginalized Sunni population feels they have no other choice but to support ISIS.

CORNISH: Finally, Deb, it's almost impossible to talk about all of this without talking about Iran, right? I mean, what's been Iran's role here and how might it measure conflict with the U.S. goals?

AMOS: Well, this is becoming a very complicated conflict. In Iraq, both the U.S. and the Iranian government support the Baghdad government and they came to some tacit agreement on its formation. In Syria, it's much different. The Iranians support President Bashar al-Assad. The Obama administration wants to see him go. So this is complicated. The U.S. is stepping into a battle where there are many regional powers involved. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran - they all have interests. Sometimes they are different than the United States' and they're all likely to step up their involvement, just as the U.S. is doing.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Deborah Amos from southern Turkey.

Deb, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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