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Is Islamic State symptom of the Assad problem?

Turkey's policymakers need to take seriously the Islamic State's growing power, instead of dismissing the group as a "symptom" of Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad erect the Syrian national flag after burning a flag of al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which they said was left behind by rebel fighters in Zor al-Mahruqa village, after the forces said they had regained control of the area and its surrounding hills in the Hama countryside October 6, 2014. REUTERS/George Ourfalian (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR4942P

One of the most-discussed topics in Western capitals these days is exactly where Turkey stands in relation to the Islamic State (IS), which has terrorized vast swaths of land in Iraq and Syria. Ankara has repeatedly declared that it considers IS a terrorist organization and a threat to Turkey and the whole region, but there are two additional problems it has in mind:

  • The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian extension, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have been defending Kobani against IS onslaught. Although many in the West might sympathize with these Kurdish militants who are heroically fighting the brutal jihadists, they still fall into the category of “terrorists” in Turkish eyes, despite the ongoing “peace process” between the Turkish government and the PKK. (In fact, precisely because of this Turkish hesitancy to help Kobani, the same peace process has become very fragile, as demonstrated by the recent Kurdish riots across Turkey that caused some 23 deaths.)
  • The Bashar al-Assad regime is another problem for Turkey, as Ankara still considers it the mother of all evils in Syria. An unnamed Turkish Foreign Ministry official expressed this view very clearly to the Turkish press: “For us to be in the international coalition [against IS], we should know the game plan and its end. And the end goal for us is the departure of Assad. … For us, IS is a symptom, whereas the root of the problem is Assad.” Clear enough. But is this really an accurate analysis of the trouble with IS?

We should all accept that the Assad regime is indeed a big part of the chaos and tragedy in Syria. The regime responded to nonviolent protests in March 2011 with violence, initiating a civil war, and has been despicably brutal against its own people, as documented by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and other international bodies. No one should give this regime any credibility merely by looking at the horrors committed by IS and other extremist factions within the Syrian opposition.

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