Royce: In Supporting Syrian Rebels, US Should Not Play Assad’s Game

By Patrick Goodenough | September 16, 2014 | 9:31pm EDT

Syrian President Bashar Assad and close ally Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow wants the international community to partner with Assad in the campaign against ISIS. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, File)

( – As the U.S. moves towards equipping Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) it should not “play his [Syrian President Bashar Assad’s] game,” House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce said Tuesday, noting that the opposition forces which the U.S. will be supporting are fighting both the terrorists and the regime.

Royce (R-Calif.) said on the House floor that Assad has avoided confrontation with ISIS, even colluding with the terrorists by buying oil from them while “focusing his efforts on wiping out these rebels in Aleppo that we’re talking about supporting.”

“His strategy is to present the world with a choice between the regime and the ISIL extremists,” he said. “Friends, we do not have to play his game.”

Speaking in support of an amendment that would give the administration authority to train and arm “appropriately vetted” Syrian opposition elements, Royce said, “We’re looking to aid these individuals who have risked their lives to combat the Assad regime and to combat the ISIL terrorists that they’re fighting today.”

The House is expected to vote Wednesday on a measure to support the rebels, in the form of an amendment to the continuing resolution which Congress needs to pass to keep the government funded through Dec. 11.

Republican and Democratic congressional leaders are backing the administration request, but there are differences over the question of whether the U.S. should support the fighters to tackle the jihadists of ISIS alone, or both ISIS and the Assad regime.

Sen John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday that the U.S. would not get many “recruits” among the Syrian rebels if the mission was to fight ISIS alone.

“They’ll also be fighting against Bashar Assad, which they’ve been doing for a number of years before ISIL was ever a significant factor,” he told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey.

“Our focus is on ISIL,” Hagel said, while Dempsey referred to an “ISIL-first strategy.”

The Assad regime and its allies in Tehran and Moscow see the new focus on defeating ISIS as an opportunity to alleviate international pressure on Damascus, even suggesting that the West partner with Assad in tackling the terrorists.

The administration insists there will be no coordination with the regime if it extends the campaign of airstrikes against ISIS from Iraq into Syria, but is also not prioritizing regime-change as part of its anti-ISIS strategy.

When he laid out that strategy on September 10, President Obama repeated the standard position on Assad’s illegitimacy, but drew a distinction between a military response to ISIS, and a political solution to the Syrian civil war.

“We must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all,” he said.

In its response to Obama’s speech, the Syrian National Coalition welcomed the plan to support rebel fighters against ISIS, but stated that “the regime generated the conditions for ISIS to become the global threat that it is today. To defeat ISIS we need a comprehensive effort that tackles both ISIS and the Assad regime as its root cause.”

Brookings Institution fellow Shadi Hamid commented Tuesday that the issues raised by McCain during the committee hearing confirmed that there is “a gaping hole at the heart of our ISIS strategy. That hole is Syria.”

He said the opposition forces which the U.S. wants to support “see Assad as the primary enemy, while we see ISIS as the greater threat. The result is significant divergence in priorities with the very local forces President Obama said we would to depend on to fight ISIS.”

Hamid argued that Syria is not just a side issue, predicting that if the U.S. is not “willing to develop a coherent multi-year effort plan to boost mainstream rebels to counter both ISIS as well as Assad, then the most we can hope to do is contain the ISIS threat.”

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