Ever since the Obama administration started back-peddling on its desire to see the Assad regime fall, the rationale for that reversal and for an unstated but obvious willingness to see Assad remain in power has been the fear that the collapse of the Syrian government would allow ISIS to gain control of most of the Syria. The U.S. and most Western governments have implicitly come to accept the argument that Bashar deployed from day one: it’s me or the terrorists.
But suppose ISIS came under attack from all sides — by the U.S., the Iraqis (including tribal Sunnis), the Kurds, Iran, Turkey, Syria’s rebels, and Assad’s air force — are we to imagine that it would fend off all its opponents?
U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel might describe ISIS as “beyond anything that we’ve seen,” but having constituted itself as an army controlling territory, ISIS is just as susceptible as any other army to facing defeat. Moreover, its success in establishing a de facto Islamic state might ironically become its undoing.
However Russia and others might want to argue against international intervention in Syria, the argument that Syria’s sovereignty must be respected no longer holds any water. Indeed, this would be an intervention one of whose principal goals would be the restoration of the territorial sovereignty of both Syria and Iraq.
The real interventionists are ISIS — they are the ones who decided to erase national boundaries and like the neoconservatives of yesteryear, attempt to redraw the map of the Middle East.
But here’s the problem: If ISIS is defeated and not just contained, Assad loses the one thing that can justify his continuation in power.
Likewise, Obama’s fear of deeper involvement in Syria is predicated on the fear of ISIS’s growing power. Paradoxically, it appears he views a contained ISIS serves as a greater source of stability than a defeated ISIS, if ISIS’s defeat is then a prelude to Assad’s defeat.
In other words, Obama might believe that a contained Islamic state is currently preferable to another Libya.
Or to put in another way: better the living hell of Syria that the world has got used to and can thus ignore, than a new form of chaos that becomes the closing chapter of Obama’s presidency.