The complexities of the Syrian civil war and it's many players are, not surprisingly, lost on many. Some have heard of President Bashar al-Assad and the various rebel groups battling his armies, others have not. Few, including supposed experts, have any real knowledge of the numerous armed groups operating within the country.
The so-called Islamic State (IS), however, is now known around the world. The extremist militant group has become the latest enemy for many countries; an "apocalyptic death cult" of "barbaric and repulsive terrorists" that burst into the public conscience when its members seized a large part of Iraq in June and went on to behead western journalists and aid workers in gruesome videos. From then on, stories of their horrific atrocities — from crucifixions to seizing sex slaves and mass executions — have been catalogued and widely publicized, both via the group's own channels and a media and global audience hungry for every bloody detail.
The US has even formed a broad anti-IS coalition, and Washington appears to be creeping its way back to deploying American personnel in combat roles.
Back in 2011 when the Syrian conflict started, politicians and the media vilified Assad as a monster for his savage crackdown on dissent. But beyond providing some logistical help to armed opposition groups, the West did little to stop him — even after he crossed President Barack Obama's self-imposed "red line."
Now, thanks to the rise of IS, he's even being thought of a potential collaborator by some American political analysts and former officials, including Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass and former US ambassador to both Iraq and Syria Ryan Crocker.
The scepter, then, appears to have been passed on to IS — at least according to policy wonks and column inches.
Except it hasn't, really. The so-called Islamic State is of course, awful. Terrifying and unmitigatedly awful. And as extremist ideologues who revel in their atrocities, they're easy to hate, and to fear. 70 percent of Americans think the group represents a direct terror threat to the country, according to a CNN/ORC poll conducted earlier this year.
Assad, in contrast, with his cheap haircut, sparse moustache, and regulation suits, looks like the trained optometrist that he is. In his occasional interviews with international media, his measured manner and almost-lisp make him seem far from monstrous.
However, neither this nor IS's emergence diminish his crimes. He still has to bear a good portion of the blame for the civil war which has participated a humanitarian disaster the UN has repeatedly described as the worst in its 64-year existence.
But he remains the man who presided over a regime that arrested, tortured, and murdered opposition activists and dissidents for years before 2011's Arab Spring sparked an uprising against his rule, which security forces attempted to put down by firing live ammunition into peaceful and unarmed crowds. Since then, at least 11,000 people were tortured to death in regime jails, according to verified images that a police photographer smuggled out of Syria.
Assad is still the man whose military besieged opposition towns when the armed rebellion began, then cut off water and medical supplies, and indiscriminately shelled civilian areas. The man who many believe killed more than 1,400 of his own people in a chemical weapons attack. The man whose air force is indiscriminately dropping highly explosives barrels and shrapnel from helicopters over still-populated towns.
Assad is still responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of displaced people, both internal and elsewhere. And if further evidence is needed, the Telegraph recently reported that IS has adopted the very same torture methods first used in Assad's jails.
And Syria's current great evil has even collaborated with its now overshadowed one. IS clashes with regime troops on a regular basis, but the group's Iraqi origins predating the Syrian civil war, along with its goals of establishing a transnational caliphate, mean that it is not really a rebel group — and Assad has both permitted and encouraged its existence.
The Syrian government released suspected Islamists from prison as early as 2012 in the knowledge that they would join IS. In many areas, local activists and rebel groups say IS bases go unmolested by Assad's forces, while rebel positions around them are hit in airstrikes and shelling. The regime has even helped jihadi groups sell their oil.
From the start of the Syrian uprising, Assad branded his opponents as foreign extremists looking to destabilize the country. Encouraging IS realized and reinforced this narrative.
IS also weakened the rebellion by taking on rebel groups in order to seize territory and impose Sharia law. And as IS grew strong, Western countries hesitated to support more moderate rebels, fearing that weapons would end up with the extremists.
Between IS and Assad, opposition groups such as the Free Syrian Army have ceased to be major forces in the country, stalling and perhaps ending the rebellion. Meanwhile, the international community is now effectively ignoring Assad, leaving him in a better position than he has been in years. His crimes are being forgotten, along with his role in the war in the first place.
Assad may appear to have passed the scepter of Evil to the so-called Islamic State, and he's happy to give that impression. The truth, however, is that it's just being shared.
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