How does the devil’s gambit work? The goal is to make the opposition appear even more threatening than the regime. If you’re a despot like Assad, this is no easy feat. For one thing, Damascus has an appalling human-rights record, and a list of allies that reads like the Axis of Evil, 2014 edition, including Iran and Hezbollah.
Furthermore, back in 2011, the original Syrian resistance won many international friends. The opposition included a large number of moderates who sought democratic change using peaceful mass protests and strikes. These tactics of non-violent resistance can successfully undermine a dictatorship, by boosting mass participation in the resistance, peeling away regime supporters, and winning foreign backing.
The devil’s gambit requires transforming the opposition into something far more radical and dangerous. If non-violent resistance is effective at toppling tyrants, then dictators can incite rebels into using extreme tactics like terrorism. Autocrats want to turn today’s Gandhis into tomorrow’s jihadists. Here, dictators can benefit from the inherently vicious nature of civil war. A cycle of atrocities and revenge is like a centrifugal force that pushes all sides to the extreme. The center cannot hold, as the catalyst of violence hardens attitudes, marginalizes moderates, and forges the opposition into a more militant entity.
In Syria, three years of scorched-earth warfare, which has left 170,000 dead and ruined much of the country, have removed the restraints on war. Over time, the balance of power within the opposition has shifted from relatively moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army to extremists like ISIS.
Dictators playing the devil’s gambit can further this process of radicalization by targeting moderate groups for destruction, or provoking them into acts of terror. Assad casts himself as the nation’s guardian against Sunni jihadists, but he has deliberately encouraged the rise of extremism. The Syrian president’s forces have allowed ISIS to consolidate a rump caliphate in northeastern Syria as a visible warning about what the alternative to his rule looks like. Indeed, Assad’s troops rarely battle ISIS, saving their fire for more moderate enemies. The regime has even reportedly released jihadists from jail to foment extremism within the opposition, and bought oil from ISIS, effectively bolstering its influence.
For Assad, ISIS is priceless. The Sunni extremist boogeyman holds the key to his political survival. As ISIS continues its assault in Iraq, employing tactics that include beheadings, crucifixions, and systematic torture, Assad has cemented his alliance with Baghdad, as well as with Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia.
Even Assad’s enemies are rethinking their strategy. European countries worry about the thousands of Europeans who have traveled to Syria to fight Assad—and their potential return as violent militants. Meanwhile, the United States has dispatched hundreds of advisors to join the battle against ISIS in Iraq. Members of the Obama administration are backing away from the goal of toppling Assad. “Anyone calling for regime change in Syria,” said one official, “is frankly blind to the past decade; and the collapse of eastern Syria, and growth of Jihadistan, leading to 30 to 50 suicide attacks a month in Iraq.”