Will US work with Syria's Assad as Islamic State makes gains?

Many say the US needs to spread its airstrikes campaign from Iraq into Syria in order to check IS. That could mean working with a regime the US sees as a pariah.

An Islamic State militant used a megaphone to tell residents of Taqba city, near the Syrian city of Raqqa, that Tabqa air base had fallen out of the control of the Assad regime on Aug. 24. The air base was one of the Syrian Army's last footholds in an area largely controlled by IS.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has earned pariah status for refusing to abandon power and plunging his country into a ruinous war of more than three years. But that war, which has torn Syria apart and left nearly 200,000 people dead, has also spawned the Islamic State (IS), the most violent band of Islamic extremists in modern times, leaving some to regard Mr. Assad as a lesser evil with whom the United States needs to cooperate.

To check the group's bloody rampage across northern Syria and Iraq, the US is currently striking IS targets in northern Iraq. But there is a growing acknowledgement in Washington that if the campaign is to succeed, it will have to spread into Syria, where the extremist group is at its strongest.

“Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria?” asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last week. “The answer is no.”

US officials confirmed on Tuesday that the US has begun reconnaissance flights over Syria, suggesting the ground is being prepared for missile strikes once targets have been identified. Some analysts argue that not only must an air campaign be carried out in Syria but it should be conducted in cooperation with the Assad regime.

“Not involving Assad in this decision could contribute to escalation geopolitically in all sorts of ways. I’m not sure that Russia would respond kindly. I’m not sure that Iran would respond kindly,” says Max Abrahms, assistant professor of public policy at Northeastern University in Boston and a counterterrorism expert. Russia and Iran are key backers of the Assad regime, providing financial, military, and diplomatic support.

“I think that the US needs to be up front with Assad, Russia, and Iran about what our goals are and what the nature of US intervention will be to placate these historic Assad allies,” Dr. Abrahms adds.

More broadly, Assad’s ability to stay in power can no longer be ignored, according to some analysts who call on the West to consider cooperating once again with Damascus to check further instability in the region.

“As unpalatable as it may be to the West, such a settlement would acknowledge the political and geographical realities on the ground,” William Young, senior policy analyst with the Rand Corporation and a former CIA Middle East specialist, wrote in USA Today in June.

On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem announced that Damascus was “ready for cooperation and coordination at the regional and international level to fight terrorism,” though he added that any unauthorized actions in Syrian territory would be deemed “an act of aggression.”

“There could be some tacit understanding where the US would not cross a certain line and that would signal to Assad that Washington is not set on toppling [the regime],” says Abrahms.

Other analysts and diplomats, while agreeing on the necessity of attacking IS [also known as ISIS or ISIL]  in Syria, profoundly disagree with the notion of coordinating such a campaign with the Assad regime.

“A hard hit against ISIS in Syria is essential for our national security.… [But] we cannot be in any form of collaboration with Assad. It would further alienate Iraqi Sunnis, complicate our relations with the Saudis and others at a critical time, and give [ISIS] a propaganda [victory],” says Ryan Crocker, dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at the Texas A&M University and a former ambassador to Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

IS has thrived with Assad's help

One of the grim ironies of the Syrian civil war is that IS has flourished in Syria in part due to the manipulations of the Assad regime itself. As initially peaceful protests turned into sectarian war in the latter half of 2011, Assad appears to have understood that secular moderate rebel factions posed a greater long-term threat to his survival than bands of wild-eyed Islamist extremists. Moderate rebel groups were more likely to win the logistical backing of the US and other Western countries that could provide sufficient leverage to oust Assad.

On the other hand, if the rebel ranks were dominated by Al Qaeda-style Islamist groups, the West would balk at providing support and could eventually even side with Damascus.

In a cynical but skillfully exploited strategy, hundreds of Islamic militants were released from Syrian prisons in the first few months of the then generally peaceful uprising.

Some of those militants became leading figures in groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which today is Al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and one of the most effective anti-Assad factions. IS was originally an Iraq-based group that began extending its influence into Syria in 2012, drawing ever-expanding numbers of recruits and earning a reputation for brutality. Unlike Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel factions, ISIS has been more interested in acquiring territory and funds to build its self-declared caliphate than in tackling the Syrian Army. And the Assad regime, until recently at least, was generally content to leave IS alone, especially as the extremist group’s attacks against moderate rebel rivals turned it into a tacit ally of Damascus.

The perfect enemy

With IS, analysts say, the Assad regime has quietly nurtured the perfect enemy – one that prefers to battle Assad’s more moderate opponents but whose brutal behavior has alarmed the international community and spurred calls in the West to bite the bullet and consider resuming cooperation with Damascus.

“In a very disciplined way, Bashar al-Assad is trying to maneuver the US into collaborating with him against ISIS in eastern Syria, even as he stands aside while ISIS tries to finish off the nationalist Syrian opposition in western Syria,” says Frederic C. Hof, senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a former State Department adviser on Syrian affairs. “This appearance of collaboration [between Damascus and Washington] will, in Assad's view, facilitate his eventual return to polite society while promoting tension between Washington and its Gulf partners.”

Mr. Hof, a strong critic of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, adds, “The US has inadvertently facilitated the prospect of this dilemma taking hold by failing adequately to support the Syrian nationalist forces who have been fighting both the regime and ISIS.  If those forces become neutralized the dilemma takes hold.”

A European ambassador in Beirut who is in regular contact with a broad array of opposition groups in Syria, including ISIS, warns that any Western coordination with the Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawites, a splinter sect of Shiite Islam, would further inflame Sunni sentiment across the region and further afield, deepening the sectarian dynamics of the conflict and rallying more recruits for IS.

If the West joins forces with the Assad regime to fight ISIS, it will be perceived as “Crusaders fighting with Alawite infidels against Sunnis.… It couldn’t be worse,” the ambassador says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The experienced diplomat says that IS can be defeated if Sunnis in Syria and Iraq are brought into an alliance against the extremist group. Recalling a recent phone conversation with a member of IS in northern Syria, the ambassador quoted the militant as acknowledging “the more it becomes a Sunni-Shiite war, the faster we will grow.”

BACKGROUNDER: How Syria's Assad has maneuvered toward better ties with West

The switch from pariah to perceived potential Western ally reflects the fluctuating fortunes of the Damascus regime’s ties with the West since Bashar al-Assad became president following his father’s death in June 2000.

Initially, he was touted as a reformer, a computer savvy 30-something who would modernize and liberate the ossified regime he had inherited. Within a year, however, initial steps toward reform faltered as the regime drew strict lines on what was permissible. Damascus’s ties with the West deteriorated following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and Syria's ever tighter relations with Iran and anti-Israel groups like Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah.

Those ties hit rock bottom in 2005, when the Assad regime was accused of assassinating a Saudi-backed former Lebanese prime minister and forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. But Assad proved more resilient than his enemies might have oped, defying predictions that his regime might collapse as he steadily began to claw back some influence in Lebanon.

By 2008, Assad could no longer be ignored. Syria was holding quiet peace talks with Israel in Turkey and Mr Assad was in Paris as an official guest of then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. A year later, even Saudi Arabia set aside its hostility toward Assad and attempted to reconcile with Damascus.

When the uprising against his regime in 2011 morphed into a bloody sectarian conflict, Mr Assad was reviled as a brutal dictator and his downfall was predicted as imminent. Yet, thanks to the support of his Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies, he has clung to power, even winning another seven year-term in office in June in an internationally derided election.

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