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Syrian Rebel Groups Fear Paris Attacks Will Take the Heat Off Assad

5 minute read


On Sunday night French jets pounded Raqqa, the claimed-capital of the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It was the largest raid yet by France against the militants and the reason was clear—payback for the attack on its capital, Paris, claimed by ISIS two days before.

France has long been part of the anti-ISIS coalition but stood firm that Syrian President Bashar Assad was the main threat in Syria, and couldn’t be part of the solution.Even when the U.S. backed down from striking government targets in 2013 after alleged chemical weapons attacks by Assad’s forces, France vowed to punish Assad.

Two years later, the U.S. and France are sitting at the table with Assad’s key supporters Iran and Russia, while their fighter jets pound ISIS targets in Syria. Now some in the Syrian opposition worry that the attack in Paris is going to further push the focus of the international community away from Assad, whose future is still being debated by world powers, to ISIS—and that they may decide it’s better to live with Assad if it helps defeat ISIS.

That’s already the argument that Moscow—allied with Assad—is making. “It doesn’t matter if you are for Assad or against him,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters as the talks in Vienna got underway. “ISIS is your enemy.”

The attack in Paris galvanized international efforts and added pressure to find a fast solution to the conflict in Syria, which has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions more—most killed by regime forces, the Syrian opposition is quick to point out, not ISIS.

Over the weekend in Vienna, 19 nations set aside their differences and tried to chart a solution to the Syrian conflict. They started the session with a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris attack and also other recent attacks in Beirut, Iraq, Ankara, and Egypt. But rather than setting aside their differences, the nations involved in Vienna seem to have largely papered over those differences in order to hammer out an agreement on Syria’s future.

The bold solution has a lot big ideas—promising a ceasefire in six months, a transitional government and a new constitution and elections in 18 month—but lacks both details and the resolution of key questions. Paramount among them, of course, is the future of President Bashar Al-Assad.

“Transitional government means new government,” says Hisham Marwah, vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition network that has long been clear that Assad cannot be part of a political solution for Syria. There’s also the question of which groups fighting in Syria are considered ‘terrorists.’ All the parties agree that the ‘terrorists’ should be excluded from the political process and can be bombed even when the ceasefire comes into effect, but they differ on exactly who these terrorists are.

For the Syrian regime, and its main backers Russia and Iran, the ‘terrorists’ are any rebel group fighting against the regime—including those supported by Gulf states and Western powers. Meanwhile, Iraqi, Afghan, Iranian and Lebanese Shiite militias, including Hezbollah, are fighting on Assad’s behalf across Syria, as well as a handful of Russian forces supporting them. Even as the parties discussed the peace plan in Vienna, Syrian rebel groups were fighting against Iranian-backed militias who had Russian air cover. “We are sad for the French victims, but the Iranians and Russians are more terrorists than any other group,” says Abu Hamza, a spokesperson for Revolutionary Command Council near Damascus, part of the mostly Sunni rebel groups fighting against Assad and his allied militia.

“Everyone has his own blacklist of terrorist groups, so the war will rage on,” says Abdurahman Harkoush, a media activist close to opposition rebel groups in Syria. So far only ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front have been designated terrorist groups. “They are just making fantasies in Vienna.”

The day after the Paris attack, Assad went has far to tell reporters that the “mistaken policies” of the French have contributed to the “spread of terrorism” a seeming dig at France’s focus on ending his regime rather than ISIS. Reports now indicate that some of the Paris attackers may have fought against Assad in Syria and returned to carry out the attacks in France.

Harkoush and others worry in the wake of the Paris attacks, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, France and other world powers will soften their stance on Assad and focus on ISIS alone. “Now they can convince France to accept a political solution without the departure of Assad,” says Harkoush. “Now France’s main problem is ISIS. Now France wants to have its war with ISIS.”

See the World Show Solidarity for France After the Paris Attacks

Tokyo Reacts To Paris Terror Attacks
The Tokyo Skytree illuminated the color of the French flag in Tokyo, on Nov. 15, 2015.Takashi Aoyama—Getty Images
Paris attacks - reaction
Jerusalem's Old City walls illuminated in the colors of the French national flag in solidarity for the victims of the Paris attacks, in Jerusalem on Nov. 15, 2015. Abir Sultan—EPA
Paris Attacks aftermath
Tower Bridge in central London, Britain is lit in the colors of the French flag on Nov. 14, 2015.Jack Taylor—EPA
APTOPIX Brazil France Paris Attacks
People take look at the Christ the Redeemer statue, lit with the colors of France's flag in solidarity with France after attacks in Paris, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Nov. 14, 2015.Leo Correa—AP
Paris Attacks reaction
Hundreds of people attend a vigil for the victims of the Paris attacks in Trafalgar Square, central London Nov. 14, 2015.Jack Taylor—EPA
Bratislava Castle is lit in red, white and blue, the colors of the French flag, in Bratislava, Slovakia on Nov. 14, 2015.Vladimir Simicek—AFP/Getty Images
France Paris Attacks
The International Peace Bridge, which connects Canada and the United States, glows with the colors of the French flag in honor of the victims of the Paris attacks, in Buffalo, NY Nov. 14, 2015.Gary Wiepert—AP
The Washington Square Park arch in New York City is lit with the French national colors in solidarity with the citizens of France on Nov. 14, 2015.Jewel Samad—AFP/Getty Images
San Francisco City Hall is lit up with blue, white and red, the colors of the French flag, following the Paris terror attacks, in San Francisco
San Francisco City Hall is lit up with blue, white and red, the colors of the French flag, following the Paris terror attacks, in San Francisco, CA on Nov. 13, 2015.Stephen Lam—REUTERS
Mourning in Berlin after Paris terrorist attacks
The Brandenburg Gate is illuminated in the French national colours in tribute for the victims of the Paris attacks in Berlin Nov. 14, 2015.Paul Zinken—EPA
Colors that resemble the French national flag are seen on top of the tower of One World Trade Center in New York City onNov. 13, 2015.Li Muzi—Xinhua Press/Corbis
Sydney Opera House Sails Lit In Colours Of French Flag Following Paris Terror Attacks
Pedestrians walk in front of the Sydney Opera House as its sails are illuminated in the colors of the French flag in Sydney, Australia on Nov. 14, 2015.Daniel Munoz—Getty Images
People walk past the Sydney Town Hall as it is lit in red, white and blue, resembling the colors of the French flag in Sydney, Australia on Nov. 14, 2015.William West—AFP/Getty Images
Las Vegas Shows Solidarity With Paris After Deadly Attacks
The High Roller at The LINQ Promenade on the Las Vegas Strip is lit up on Nov. 13, 2015.Ethan Miller—Getty Images
A man rides next to the Taipei 101 building in Taipei, Taiwan, as it lit up with the colors of the French flag on Nov. 14, 2015. Sam Yeh—AFP/Getty Images
The Oriental Pearl TV Tower is lit as China expressed their solidarity with France, in Shanghai on Nov. 14, 2015.Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images
Vigil Held In Auckland For Victims of Paris Attacks
Lights in the colors of the French flag, light up the Auckland Museum to remember victims of the Paris attacks, in New Zealand on Nov. 14, 2015.Hannah Peters—Getty Images
Mexican monuments illuminated in support of France
The Angel of Independence is seen with the colors of France in Mexico City on Nov. 14, 2015.Manuel Velasquez—Anadolu Agency—Getty Images
CN Tower Lit Up for France
The CN Tower lit up in support of France in the face of tragedy, on Nov. 13, 2015.Cole Burston—Toronto Star/Getty Images

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