WASHINGTON, September 18, 2014 — Although the idea of working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on anything may initially seem counter to U.S. policy, a closer look reveals a potential opportunity to kill two foreign policy goals with one stone.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a threat to Iraq, to the region, and eventually to the world. U.S. General Dempsey committed the unpardonable sin of saying so, before he back-tracked to politically palatable statements changing his mind. Dempsey has now foreshadowed U.S. intentions by noting that ground troops could be necessary to defeat the terrorists.
Military experts across the globe agree we can’t air strike our way to a victory against ISIS. The group has proven itself adept at adapting to external threat to survive. It has morphed from a traditional army-style fighting force to a guerrilla force. When attacked in Iraq, it retracts to Syria to gain strength.
Experts also agree that Syria is an important part of the fight against ISIS. Allowing the terrorists to regroup in a Syrian safe-haven eliminates the possibility of eradicating the group. At best, air strikes in Iraq against ISIS will push them back to other locations, where they can plan and execute attacks both in the region and, potentially, around the world.
Syria presents the West with a conundrum. Working against ISIS in Syria means strengthening the hand of Assad, a brutal dictator who has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against his own people.
Backing the disjointed and fractured ‘moderate’ opposition causes a myriad of its own problem. The Free Syrian Army an unstructured organization with a questionable hierarchy, which has suffered numerous defeats in the last few months. Additionally, despite guarantees that it is fighting ISIS, there are numerous reports of weapons sent to the FSA ending up in the hands of ISIS.
Arming the Syrian opposition to fight ISIS also helps Assad by distracting the group with two fronts.
Moreover, sending more arms into Syria deepens the quagmire, causes more destruction and death, and provides no long-term solution to the war in Syria.
If Washington marries diplomacy, military, and covert action, it could potentially come up with a creative plan to fight ISIS and end the war in Syria.
Before taking any action, Washington must identify foreign policy goals. If those goals are to 1. defeat ISIS and 2. move Syria toward democracy and end the bloodshed, a single, coherent plan could work.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has offered to work with the West against ISIS. Of course, this is because Assad realizes that the largest threat to his government is ISIS, not the FSA or the other disparate opposition groups fighting in the country.
The West could approach Assad and the FSA with a proposal, leveraging military assistance in exchange for a cease fire and a move toward democracy. For example, if Assad and the ‘moderate’ opposition agree to a transitional parliament where all parties are represented, the new-found coalition would agree to help with the fight against ISIS in Syria. The U.S. and its allies could almost certainly persuade Assad and the opposition, given the right carrot-stick combination.
The last thing Assad wants is for a coalition to roust ISIS from Iraq into Syria. A full complement of ISIS fighters in Syria would cause significant damage to a war weary Assad regime. Likewise, the opposition is already facing massive defeats from both Assad and ISIS, and could regain some legitimacy from a deal that ends the fighting and grants them representation.
The second phase of an agreement would include free presidential elections after Assad’s current term ends.
At the same time, Western countries could mount a covert action campaign to identify and cultivate potential alternatives to Assad.
While this option may seem somewhat distasteful, the likely options post-Assad range from a chaotic power vacuum as is currently taking place in Libya to an ISIS government.
The first step is clearly identifying U.S. foreign policy goals and priorities, then we can define a strategy.
Then, maybe we can make a deal.