The beginning of US surveillance flights over Syria along with continued airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq signal a march toward war.
Now President Barack Obama is again trying to build a coalition of the willing to support broader US military action in the region.
But wading into Syria would get extremely complicated. The rise of IS is turning the region upside down, making a mockery of long-standing enmities and alliances.
For starters, IS (also known as ISIS and ISIL) is the dominant force fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It's been gaining ground: On Sunday, IS seized the Tabqa air base, another success that, the Washington Post reports, has resulted in an entire province out of Assad’s reach for the first time in Syria’s 3-year-old civil war.
That’s why some analysts argue that US attacks on IS targets in Syria may have the unintended consequence of shoring up Assad, whose removal from office has been a mainstay of US policy for years.
But Obama appears to be gradually jettisoning his previous reservations about direct US involvement in Syria’s war.
The videotaped beheading of US journalist James Foley and IS threats against other American hostages in Syria are cranking up pressure on Obama to respond forcefully.
The White House insists it will not coordinate with Assad.
But should the US risk empowering one enemy by taking on another?
Here are some of the pros and cons.
1. Common enemy: two against one
With the murder of Foley last week, IS has launched itself into the American mainstream as a major threat.
Secretary of State John Kerry called IS “ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil,” and insisted that the group “must be destroyed.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the militant group is “beyond anything that we’ve seen,” and warned that the US “must prepare for everything.”
Now, in addition to continuing airstrikes in Iraq, officials are acknowledging the possible need to hit targets in Syria.
“Can [IS] be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria?” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said to reporters last week. “The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.”
But going into Syria without the agreement of its government raises all sorts of prickly questions.
“Any breach of Syrian sovereignty by any side constitutes an act of aggression,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Monday.
But, he added, Syria is willing to cooperate in defeating IS.
Policymakers calling themselves "realists” advocate that America should just hold its nose and team up with the Syrian government.
“We’re going to have to make a choice. If we want to eliminate this ISIS, we’re going to have to deal with people we don’t like. 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,” Richard Clarke, an expert in counterterrorism, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
Assad has long insisted that the alternative to his rule would be the rise of Islamist extremism. His major backers, Russia and Iran, agree.
So, will Washington make common cause with some of its toughest adversaries?
2. IS is the bigger threat
The Assad regime, while noxious, abhorrent and undeniably deadly to its own citizens, does not target the US. Assad is not a direct threat, which is one reason the Obama administration has struggled to justify getting more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict.
IS has proved it can brutally target US citizens abroad. It’s threatened to kill its next US journalist hostage, Steven Sotloff, if America doesn’t stop its air campaign in Iraq. Now officials are weighing whether the militants could become a real danger to the homeland.
Bombing IS in Syria would help Assad; this is undeniable. But can the US fight them both at once?
3. There is little alternative
The administration and some military pundits hold out hope that both Assad and IS can be defeated by training and arming the moderate rebels, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
“There is, in fact, a way that the United States could get what it wants in Syria — and, ultimately, in Iraq as well — without sending in US forces: by building a new Syrian opposition army capable of defeating both President Bashar al-Assad and the more militant Islamists,” Middle East expert Kenneth Pollack wrote in Foreign Affairs.
But in order for this to happen, an awful lot of obstacles would have to magically fade away. For one thing, as Pollack points out, the US would have to properly vet recruits in order to weed out extremists.
Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, dismisses such talk as unrealistic.
“The FSA was always more fiction than reality,” he wrote recently in The Washington Post. “Syria’s civil war has long been a dizzying array of local battles, with loose and rapidly shifting alliances driven more by self-interest and the desires of their external patrons than ideology … The idea that these rebel groups could be vetted for moderation and entrusted with advanced weaponry made absolutely no sense given the realities of the conflict in Syria.”
Obama put it plainly, speaking with The New York Times' Thomas Friedman:
It’s always been a fantasy this idea that we could provide some light arms or even sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah — that was never in the cards.
So, if the FSA is a non-starter, maybe we’re stuck with Assad?
On the other hand …
Members of the Free Syrian Army. (AFP/Getty Images)
1. It would enrage Sunnis
As Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told The New York Times, “Joining forces with Assad would essentially permanently alienate the Sunni population in both Syria and Iraq, who are necessary to dislodging ISIL.”
Assad, a member of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam, has been brutal in his repression of Sunnis in Syria. The Iraqi regime has also kept Sunnis out of the halls of power.
But the fallout could well go beyond those two countries, says Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo.
“A deal so unsavory would have long-term consequences for American credibility,” he told GlobalPost of the idea of Washington joining forces with Demascus. “No American would ever be able to look a Sunni Muslim in the eye again.”
Given that close to 90 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunni, that could be a very bad bargain indeed.
2. It wouldn’t work
Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has been outspoken in his condemnation of any deal with Assad.
As Al Jazeera’s Inside Story quoted him as saying Monday:
.@ShadiHamid "i worry about growing course in Washington to support Assad in his fight against ISIS - means acting as Assad's air force"— Inside Story (@AJInsideStoryAM) August 25, 2014
Later that evening, Hamid told CNN that any move to help Assad would be counterproductive, since Assad is “one of the root causes” of IS.
“We have to avoid any kind of cooperation, tacit or direct,” he said. “It would be kind of odd if we ally ourselves with the root cause to address the symptom.” This kind of short-term thinking would be a mistake, he added.
Media and officials have blamed Assad not only for the brutality that engendered the rage that fuels groups like IS, but for failing to confront the extremist group when it was fighting the rebels of the Western-backed FSA.
Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, explained to the Wall Street Journal:
“When these groups clashed, the Syrian government benefited. When you have so many enemies and they clash with each other, you must take advantage of it. You step back, see who is left and finish them off.”
3. There’s no future in it
Once IS is defeated, rebuilding Syria will be a long and tortuous process. Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to both Iraq and Afghanistan, is calling for a major military intervention, followed by a long and intensive stabilization phase.
“The defeat of IS will require a stronger military response than the United States has fielded to date,” Khalilzad wrote in the National Interest. “The model should be based on the successful effort to topple the Taliban government after 9/11, which involved US special forces and air power working in combination with local forces. However, it should be more robust than the Afghan campaign in terms of security assistance and follow-on stabilization efforts.”
Given the trillion-dollar mess that Afghanistan has become, the US public may be less than enthused at an even “more robust” campaign in Syria.
Also, as anyone who has studied the war in Afghanistan can attest, a stable and reliable government is a must for any post-conflict reconstruction. It’s doubtful that voices in the West would seriously advocate rebuilding Syria with Assad at the helm.
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