The Terrible Idea of Partnering With Syria’s Assad

Syria's President Bashar Assad, reviews an honor guard upon his arrival at the presidential palace to take the oath of office for his new term of office, on July 16, 2014.

SANA/AP

AA Font size + Print

Syria's President Bashar Assad, reviews an honor guard upon his arrival at the presidential palace to take the oath of office for his new term of office, on July 16, 2014.

Why the U.S. teaming up with the Syrian dictator is both an interesting thought experiment and a terrible idea. By Bobby Ghosh

Serious people are beginning to talk up the idea of an alliance between the US and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against the seemingly unstoppable forces of the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS).

Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to both Baghdad and Damascus, and a man whose opinion I value, argues that Assad is “the least worst option” in Syria. Richard Haass, who heads the Council on Foreign Relations, and is a foreign-policy realist, has written an opinion piece in the Financial Times (paywall) suggesting such an alliance may be the only way to defeat the terrorist group. (Haass and I briefly debated the point on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.)

It makes for a fascinating thought experiment. The argument goes like this: US airstrikes against some IS targets in Iraq won’t defeat the terrorists; to defeat them, we must fight them in all their safe havens, including those in Syria; to do that, we’ll need boots on the ground as well as airstrikes; President Obama won’t send US troops into Syria (or anywhere else); the non-Islamist Syrian opposition isn’t much of a fighting force; the only force capable of fighting the IS on the ground is Assad’s military; therefore, we should partner with Assad.

The philosophical quandary such an alliance would present—we’d be supporting a tyrant who has killed tens of thousands of his own people—is waved away with an old precedent: the Western powers partnered with Josef Stalin, no slouch at slaughter, against Nazi Germany.

Here are four reasons why:

  1. Western support for a Shia dictator (Assad is an Alawite, a branch of Shi’ism) would be propaganda gold for IS. One of the group’s foundational grievances is that the US-led invasion of Iraq handed power in Baghdad to the Shia and cast the Sunnis—in IS’s view, the legitimate rulers of Mesopotamia—into the cold. Were Obama to make a compact of convenience with Assad, it would play into that narrative: The West is taking sides in Islam’s internecine war. This would turbo-charge what is already a rallying cry for IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and bring even more Sunni radicals to his banner.
  2. It would outrage many Sunni states—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, et al—that view the civil war in Syria as a sectarian conflict. To many in those countries IS is a threat, but Assad is the greater evil. Any hope that Sunni countries would join the fight against IS would be extinguished by a US-Assad alliance. Instead, some of these states would feel compelled to resume covert support for IS.
  3. It would empower Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia terrorist group that enjoys Assad’s backing. Hezbollah fighters have been at the forefront of the fight against IS in Syria, acting as Assad’s shock troops. Supporting Assad would in effect mean supporting one terrorist group that has killed Americans against another.
  4. It would give Assad, who gave IS crucial help to flourish in the first place, incentive to keep the group going (or at least prevent its destruction), in order to preserve his alliance with the West. Meanwhile, any money and material assistance delivered to Damascus will be used to enrich Assad and his generals, or used to pursue agendas that have nothing to do with fighting the terrorists. That’s pretty much the story of Pakistan, where US funding for counterinsurgency operations is often diverted to the acquisition of conventional weapons in the arms race with India, while the Pakistani military conducts elaborate (and ultimately ineffectual) feints against terrorist groups.

The choices facing President Obama are difficult and delicate. The challenge posed by IS is a complicated one, and the response from the rest of the world will be complicated, as well. But an unholy alliance between the US and Assad cannot be part of that response.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

    Download
  • Military Readiness: Ensuring Readiness with Analytic Insight

    To determine military readiness, decision makers in defense organizations must develop an understanding of complex inter-relationships among readiness variables. For example, how will an anticipated change in a readiness input really impact readiness at the unit level and, equally important, how will it impact readiness outside of the unit? Learn how to form a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of readiness and make decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner.

    Download
  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

    Download
  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

    Download
  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.