s forces loyal to Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad regained control of a significant part of the city of Homs this week, it is important to remember how Syria has reached this point. Almost five years ago Syrians came out in their hundreds of thousands to demonstrate largely peacefully for the freedoms that others had mobilised for during the Arab spring. The dictator reacted by unleashing a brutal wave of violence against his own citizens, including Scud missiles, chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Partly because there was no western intervention to protect civilians, the anti-Assad uprising reacted by becoming increasingly associated with jihadism, their main external support coming from the Gulf states.
In this context, Islamic State, casting itself as a defender of the majority Sunni population targeted by Mr Assad, took control of large swaths of territory, even while slaughtering many Sunnis too. Mr Assad’s policy of mass murder, which accounts for most of the 300,000 violent deaths in Syria, and the displacement of over half of the country’s population (4 million of whom are refugees abroad) has been the main engine behind the rise of Isis in Syria.
All of this bears repeating as the west intensifies its campaign against Isis and as the local ceasefire in Homs began to take effect this week. As documents published in the Guardian this week have shown, Isis’s self-proclaimed caliphate has plans to become a full-blown state stretching across Syria and Iraq. Mr Assad’s propaganda, echoed by Russia, claims that he is an indispensable ally in the fight against Isis. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Mr Assad’s military, just like Russia’s, has focused most of its operations against anti-Assad rebels. The ceasefire in the Homs district of Al-Waer, in the city that was the “capital” of the 2011 uprising, is a painful symbol of the reality that Mr Assad’s aim is to make sure there is nothing left in Syria but him and Isis.
If Isis is to be defeated, the best hope of building ground forces capable of pushing it out of the areas it controls can only come from local Sunni groups. To harness the support of those groups – who for four years now have felt abandoned by the west – it is essential to maintain the message that Mr Assad is no ally, and that he cannot be part of a long-term solution for Syria.
This isn’t Iraq in 2003. Conditions must be created to ensure the Syrian state can survive without Mr Assad. Anything that smacks of the de-Ba’athification that was such a disaster in Iraq must be avoided. Minorities will need to be given security guarantees, especially the Alawite community from which the Assad family comes. But as diplomatic efforts continue, alongside the necessary battle against Isis, it remains essential to ensure that no meaningful political transition can allow Mr Assad to remain entrenched in power. Isis is the enemy, but Mr Assad is the problem. Indeed, as long as Mr Assad remains, Isis will remain too – and its terrorism will grow.