The rise of jihadists in Iraq has set the West on edge, but Damascus sees it is an opportunity to legitimise its battle against rebels and promote it as a war on “terror”.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has repeatedly denied the existence of a revolt seeking political change in Syria, instead branding its opponents — both peaceful and armed — as “terrorists”.
For Damascus, the lightning Sunni offensive in neighbouring Iraq led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) provides a chance to lend credence to its rhetoric.
“The West must recognise it made a mistake by encouraging all these people to establish themselves in the region,” said Waddah Abed Rabbo, editor-in-chief of pro-regime daily Al-Watan.
“It’s time to realise that an international coalition is needed to fight the terrorism that is spreading from Jordan to Turkey. It’s no longer just a Syrian problem,” he told AFP.
“Of course, Syria must be part of this coalition. It is doing all the work. By fighting the terrorists at home, Syria is helping the Jordanians and the Iraqis too,” Abed Rabbo added.
The West has hesitated to supply arms to Syria’s opposition, fearing that weapons could end up in jihadist hands.
Now, with ISIL gaining swathes of territory in northern and western Iraq, the US-backed Iraqi military has been exposed as too fragile to weather the onslaught alone.
Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told AFP: “The (Syrian) regime seems to be satisfied with the situation.”
If the United States does not support Baghdad now, Perthes said, Washington “will be accused of letting Iraq fall into the hands of jihadists”.
And if the US gives Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki military aid or even drone or air strikes, it will “be seen as cooperating not only with Iran but also with Bashar al-Assad’s regime”.
Shiite Iran is a key ally of both Assad and Maliki’s government.
But any attempts by the administration in Washington to seek rapprochement with Assad to build a front against ISIL “would further weaken the moderate opposition and rebels”, Perthes said.
– Winning Western support –
Washington said on Thursday it opposes any intervention by Damascus in Iraq’s conflict, after Maliki reported that Syrian warplanes had launched strikes against militants on the Iraqi side of the border.
Syria’s war began as a peaceful movement for political change before a brutal government crackdown saw it become a full-blown insurgency, but the conflict became more complex when jihadists from around the world flocked to Syria.
Rebels seeking Assad’s ouster initially welcomed ISIL in Syria, but its systematic abuses and quest for dominance turned the opposition against it.
Now, moderates and Islamists are fighting both the regime and ISIL at the same time.
Until the crisis in Iraq erupted, the Syrian air force only occasionally targeted ISIL positions, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
But after Sunni militants launched their offensive “the regime air force started carrying out daily, intense raids against ISIL bastions”.
“This way, the regime shows itself as fighting a war against ISIL,” Abdel Rahman said, alleging there has been a “tacit agreement with Western countries to strike the jihadists… They are coordinating with the regime.”
Assad’s regime, he added, “wants to try to regain its legitimacy. It may be that the regime is winning back the support of countries that were vying for its ouster, but it will never regain the backing of the people.”
Syria’s war has killed more than 162,000 people, and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.
According to Samir Nashar, a member of the opposition National Coalition, “Assad has managed, to an extent, to distract people’s attention away from the popular revolution, and to portray it as an extremist wave”.