Syria: Should the West work with Assad?

Fred Hof writes: The combination of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) running amok in Iraq and the appearance of an Assad regime military victory in western Syria have added octane to arguments that Washington should forego its step-aside guidance to Bashar al-Assad. An unnamed senior Obama administration official recently told The Daily Beast, “Anyone calling for regime change in Syria is frankly blind to the past decade; and the collapse of eastern Syria, and the growth of Jihadistan, leading to thirty to fifty suicide attacks a month in Iraq.” The senior official was wise to insist on anonymity: he or she implied that a murderous regime is part of the solution and attributed blindness to a president who, nearly three years ago, told Assad to step aside. Other analysts have gone farther, suggesting that the West work with Assad to counter ISIS and rebuild Syria. Should Washington and its allies consider cooperating with the Assad regime?

There are two aspects of the “do business with Assad thesis:” one posits that the regime has won; and the other suggests that the ISIS rampage in Iraq wipes the slate clean in terms of the Assad regime’s complicity in creating the problem to be solved. Thus, the regime’s role in the establishment of al-Qaeda in Iraq becomes yesterday’s news. The regime’s sheer brutality — serving as a magnet for ISIS and its cadre of Sunni foreign fighters — becomes irrelevant. The de facto collaboration of ISIS and the regime in seeking to obliterate Assad’s Syrian opposition may, once that pesky opposition disappears, be safely put to the side. The sheer scope of the ISIS emergency, according to this line of thinking, makes it mandatory for the West to work with the Assad regime to beat ISIS.

Indeed, the Syrian opposition is back on its heels and perhaps headed for a knockdown; if not a knockout. In Aleppo, it faces a murderous barrage of regime barrel bombs to its front and ISIS assaults to its back. Whatever Bashar al-Assad and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi may think of one another personally, their top tactical priority in Syria is identical: destroy the Syrian nationalist opposition to the Assad regime.

That destruction is vital to both parties. From the beginning, Assad has maintained that terrorists, top-heavy with foreign fighters, are his only opponents of consequence. By focusing his firepower on the nationalist opposition and by largely ignoring the ISIS phenomenon, he seeks to give his argument the attribute of truth and restore his value to the West. As for ISIS, exterminating Assad’s opposition opens up two possibilities: incorporating non-regime Syria into its declared state; and setting the stage for its ultimate showdown with the regime (unless, of course, it and the regime extend indefinitely their live-and-let-live arrangement).

Is the definitive defeat of the Syrian opposition inevitable and (if so), would that defeat mandate a renewal of the transactional relationship between the regime and the West? [Continue reading…]

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