For more than three years, the Obama administration has been content with largely staying out of the conflict in Syria. But the recent ISIS offensive in Iraq and the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley has drawn Obama closer to what he called “somebody else’s civil war.”
Top American officials now acknowledge that the U.S. must confront ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, but there is a lack of policy as to how that can be accomplished.
The administration reportedly favours bolstering moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army, which Obama has neglected for years. Others in Washington advocate working with Iran and its client, Bashar al-Assad, despite the Syrian president’s track record of historic brutality against Syrian revolutionaries and civilians.
“If we want to eliminate this ISIS, we’re going to have to deal with people we don’t like,” former White House security advisor Richard Clarke told ABC News on Sunday. “You know, the president said we wanted Assad out. Well, we’re going to have to say something to the Syrian government if we’re going to start bombing in Syria. And if we’re going to get rid of ISIS, we’re going to have to start bombing in Syria.”
Given that truly countering ISIS would require much more than airstrikes, some experts see the idea of accepting Assad as a viable partner to be a particularly dangerous idea.
“Many are arguing that, in the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is my friend — that the immediate threat from ISIS is so great that the United States must align with Iran and Syria in order to counter it. This view ignores the long history of Iran and Syria of playing arsonist and fireman at the same time,” Mike Doran, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy, told Business Insider in an email.
The U.S. Treasury Department has called out Iran for allowing senior al Qaeda members in Iran to move Sunni fighters into Syria. And before Assad allowed ISIS to grow in Syria, he helped some of the same fighters flow into Iraq.
“Historically, Assad has also had a complex, at times supportive, relationship with Sunni jihadi elements–including those which eventually morphed into IS,” Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and expert on Shia militias, told Business Insider in an email. “He was assisting in funelling a good number of these fighters into Iraq during the Iraq War and even caused Maliki to call out Damascus for its activities.”
Doran argued that Syria and Iran are now “exploiting its rise in order to present themselves to the Obama administration as valuable [counterterrorism] partners,” and noted that the plan may eventually work given that Obama appears receptive to the idea of partnering with Iran to re-balance the region.
“He approaches the Middle East with two core assumptions: that the United States should not again put boots on the ground, and that the ISIS threat, not the Iranian nuclear program, is the national security priority,” Doran explained. “If the United States is unwilling to lead the effort to destroy ISIS, and if Iran is not a comparable threat, then he has few choices other than to work with Iran and its partners against ISIS.”
‘Policy Is Boxed In’
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider that Assad and Iran have been adjusting policy based on Obama’s clear reluctance to interfere in Syria, his fear of what could come after Assad, and his distrust of the Free Syrian Army.
“Once you put all of these things together, and make ISIS the priority, then policy is boxed in,” Badran said. In this way, working with Assad “is the option that the president has created by result of his policy decisions and the result of his grander view of the region in regards to detente with the Iranians.”
However, any coordination with Iran and Assad in Syria would have far-reaching consequences in regards to America’s traditional allies in the region. It would also create the awkward situation of the U.S. being on the same side as Iranian proxy groups who have targeted Americans in Iraq and elsewhere.
“Long term consequences would amount to further distancing of the United States from Sunni Arab allies, particularly those in the Gulf,” Smyth told BI. “It would also signal a lack of commitment to other allies in the region and abroad. Beyond that, are we willing to accept Hizballah’s and those other Iran proxy militias’ growth in power? These forces have not reneged on their threats against the U.S. or deep hostility toward U.S. interests in the region.”
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about developments in Iraq in Washington, August 18, 2014.
What Can Be Done
“Assad is playing his own games and will continue to do so. A common enemy does not always create a common friend,” Smyth told BI. “The U.S. is in a multipolar environment and it needs to accept that there are numerous, often competing, sets of enemies. Being dynamic is never simple.”
The war on ISIS has surely made for strange alliances so far as American, Syrian and Iranian jets fly overhead while Kurdish peshmerga, Iraqi soldiers, and Iranian tanks fight together on the ground.
Nevertheless, partnering with Iran and Assad against ISIS in Syria could exacerbate the increasingly sectarian situation in the Middle East.
“Iran and Syria have no assets that can counter the ISIS threat without making matters worse,” Doran told BI. “Assad’s basic approach, for example, has been ethnic cleansing, driving Sunni civilians from their homes. Such brutality only succeeds in creating an environment, among Sunnis, that works to the advantage of ISIS.”
Consequently, Doran advocates working with traditional American partners in the region to work with the Sunnis who are living in ISIS-controlled areas.
“The key is to detach moderate Sunnis, the vast majority of Sunnis, from ISIS, by providing them with security and with a political alternative to rule by Iran and its proxies,” Doran told BI. “The first step is to commit the United States, to crushing ISIS unambiguously.
“The second step is to create a coalition to achieve that goal by creating a new order in what is now Jihadistan, the region that ISIS controls from Baghdad to Aleppo. That coalition should include, among others, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, France, Britain, and, of course, the Free Syrian Army.”
The alternative — working with Assad and his allies — would play into Assad’s hand, according to a diplomat for several decades in the Syrian Foreign Ministry.
“U.S coordination with Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, or the Assad government in the fight against ISIS will play directly into the Assad plan,” Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi wrote in the Atlantic Council recently.
“It will prove to Assad that his manipulation of time and terror has once again worked.”
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