During a nationally televised address on Sept. 10, president Barack Obama laid out his strategy for confronting ISIS. He made it clear that his efforts against the group wouldn’t be limited to Iraq, where the U.S. is already carrying out airstrikes.
“I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama said. “That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”
The government of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad immediately sensed an opportunity. That’s the same government that has gassed a Damascus suburb, systematically murdered over 10,000 of its opponents, and bears a large portion of the responsibility for a war that’s killed 200,00 people and displaced 9 million more.
Shortly after the speech, Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal al-Makdad told NBC News that the Assad regime was open to a counter-terror partnership with the U.S. — even though Obama had called for Assad’s resignation as early as April 2011.
“When it comes to terrorism, we should forget our differences … and forget all about the past,” al-Makdad told NBC. “It takes two to tango … We are ready to talk.”
The Assad regime heard a lot it could work with last night: Obama called Assad “illegitimate” without demanding that he step down. The president talked about ramping up aid to Syria’s moderate rebels, but this isn’t a real change in policy: the U.S. has been channeling forms of lethal assistance into the country for years without providing the kind of help that could swing the conflict or topple the Assad regime.
Basically, Syria will soon have the world’s most powerful military bombing one of its most threatening enemies on its own soil — and without the U.S. taking any steps to simultaneously weaken the government in Damascus.
But the Assad regime will be likely disappointed if it took last night’s speech as a sign that the U.S. could conceivably re-set its relationship with Damascus.
It’s true that the Obama administration seems to think that U.S. airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria are inevitable. The expansion of American operations to Iraq’s western neighbour had been publicly floated by administrating officials a week before the speech. And Obama is rooting the legality of his coming anti-ISIS efforts in the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which allows the president to go after al Qaeda and whoever else aided in the 9/11 terrorist attacks — and in not the still-valid 2002 AUMF that allows for U.S. actions in Iraq.
That doesn’t mean that the administration is entering into a partnership or an alliance with Assad.
The Obama administration could covertly coordinate or share intelligence with Assad or his allies, something that has allegedly already happened. But this is far different from providing direct air support for Assad’s army as it attempts to re-take ISIS-controlled territory in eastern and northern Syria. And even if it doesn’t mark a change in policy, Obama at least publicly discussed aiding a moderate rebel coalition that’s currently on the brink of collapse.
U.S. attacks could work as a force-multiplier for a Syrian military that has experienced major losses in its fight against ISIS in recent weeks — if nothing else, Assad has gone from being the potential target of U.S. airstrikes in the country to a probable beneficiary of future U.S. military action.
“Assad is the far stronger player in Syria; hitting ISIS necessarily helps him consolidate power,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer told Business Insider. “That’s a cause and effect that the U.S. is trying to avoid, but it’s the reality.”
At the same time, the administration doesn’t seem eager to take Mekdad up on his offer for a totally repaired relationship, for now opting for pragmatic and limited security cooperation, rather than an open alliance with one of the most reviled governments on the planet.
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