The pundits were wrong about Assad and the Islamic State. As usual, they're not willing to admit it
The Islamic State is a shadow of its former self. In 2014, the extremist group seemed to make substantial inroads in achieving its stated goal of a caliphate. It boasted tens of thousands of fighters and territorial control over an area roughly the size of South Korea. By almost every metric, Islamic State has collapsed in its Syria stronghold, as well as in Iraq.
The rollback of Islamic State must come as a shock to the chorus of journalists and analysts who spent years insisting that such progress would never happen without toppling the regime of Bashar Assad — which is, of course, still standing. A cavalcade of opinion makers long averred that Islamic State would thrive in Syria so long as Assad ruled because the Syrian Arab Army was part of the same disease.
John Bolton, former United Nations ambassador under George W. Bush, insisted in the New York Times that “defeating the Islamic State” is “neither feasible nor desirable” if Assad remains in power. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham asserted that “defeating Islamic State also requires defeating Bashar Assad.” Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution prescribed a policy of “building a new Syrian opposition army capable of defeating both President Bashar al-Assad and the more militant Islamists.” Similarly, Max Boot, a contributing writer to this newspaper, argued that vanquishing Islamic State was futile unless the U.S. also moved to depose the “Alawite regime in Damascus.”
...For a while, everywhere one looked, the media was peddling the same narrative. The Daily Beast described Islamic State fighters as “Assad’s henchmen.” The New York Times promoted the idea that “Assad’s forces” have been “aiding” Islamic State by “not only avoiding” the group “but actively seeking to bolster their position.” Time parroted the pro-regime-change line that “Bashar Assad won't fight” Islamic State.
But these popular arguments were, to put it mildly, empirically challenged.
The case for regime change in Damascus was reminiscent of the one cooked up for Baghdad in 2003: Interventionists played on American fears by pretending that the strongmen were in direct cahoots with Salafi jihadists (the ultra-conservative movement within Sunni Islam). The evidence of Assad sponsoring Islamic State, however, was about as strong as for Saddam Hussein sponsoring Al Qaeda.
...By now it should be obvious that the Syrian Arab Army has played a role in degrading Islamic State in Syria — not alone, of course, but with Russian and Iranian partners, not to mention the impressive U.S.-led coalition. In marked contrast to pundit expectations, the group’s demise was inversely related to Assad’s power. Islamic State’s fortunes decreased as his influence in the country increased.
Equally contrary to analyst predictions, the group imploded right after external support for the “moderate” rebels dried up. The weakening of the rebels was a major setback for Islamic State because Assad could finally focus his firepower on the group. Fewer weapon shipments into the theater, moreover, meant fewer arms fell into the hands of Salafi jihadists.
How strange, then, that we haven’t heard many pundits acknowledge their mistakes; they’re not itching to atone for having almost forced another regime-change mission based on discredited analysis.
As in Iraq a decade earlier, regime change in Syria would have created the ultimate power vacuum for Islamic State to flourish.
Moreover, the notion that pumping arms and fighters into Syria would mitigate the unrest is actually the opposite of what study after study has established. The conflict literature makes clear that external support for the opposition tends to exacerbate and extend civil wars, which usually peter out not through power-sharing agreements among fighting equals, but when one side — typically, the incumbent — achieves dominance.
...Although the Islamic State’s caliphate is dead, Assad’s war on terrorists in Syria is very much alive. Let’s hope future analysis of this conflict avoids the kind of anti-empirical ideological advocacy that helped give rise to Al Qaeda in Iraq and then Islamic State in the first place.