Three questions are being raised by pundits and politicians about how Iran and Syria’s Assad regime should figure into possible military action by the United States and its allies against ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIL and the Islamic State.
- Is it a mistake to attack ISIS in Syria since ISIS is also an enemy of the Assad regime and such attacks may ensure Assad holds on to power?
- Should the U.S. team up with the Assad regime to attack ISIS in Syria?
- Should the U.S. work with Iran to destroy ISIS?
Some are arguing we should not bomb ISIS in Syria because that would strengthen Assad. Others argue since the ISIS threat is so dire, we should work with Assad to destroy it.
A few believe we should work with Iran against ISIS.
These difficult questions reflect how messy the situations in Iraq and Syria have become as a result of numerous policy mistakes by the United States and Europe over the last few years.
Doing anything to prop up the brutal Assad dictatorship is obviously an unpalatable course of action. Some experts have proposed clever ways to prevent the Syrian army from benefiting from U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria by also bombing Syrian airfields and attacking the Syrian army and Iranian-backed militias to buy time to train and arm the moderate Syrian rebels of the Free Syrian Army — FSA.
Such proposals are fantasies. Attacking the Syrian army would get the United States into a war with Syria and put U.S. planes at risk of being shot down by Syrian air defenses. Moreover, the Free Syrian Army is badly outmatched by ISIS and the Syrian army. After withholding arms since 2011 from the FSA, attempting to arm and train these rebels now to make them a force capable of taking on ISIS and the Syrian army would take many months, assuming this is even possible.
The truth is the United States and Europe effectively conceded the Syrian civil war to Assad years ago. If the West had attacked Syrian forces in 2011 when they began their bloody crackdown against anti-government protesters or created humanitarian safe zones in Syria in 2011 or 2012, the Syrian rebels may have defeated the Assad regime before it was shored up by Iran and Russia.
Given the seriousness of the ISIS threat and the likelihood that Assad is not going to be defeated, attacking ISIS in Syria even though this may benefit the Assad government is the right move. However, the U.S. should not do anything to further legitimize Assad by allying with him to defeat ISIS. We should instead warn Damascus that we will retaliate against any Syrian government attacks on Western aircraft. I believe the Assad government probably would go along with this.
There is a temptation to team up with Iran to combat ISIS.
I suspect senior Obama officials are already exploring this idea with Iranian diplomats on the margins of ongoing talks on Iran’s nuclear program. This would be a serious mistake. Iran bears significant responsibility for the outbreak of sectarian tensions in Iraq since 2011 due to its strong support for the Maliki government and by its training of Shiite militias that have massacred Iraqi Sunnis. America’s policy should be reduce Iran’s influence in Iraq and Syria and do nothing to increase its influence.
To defeat the ISIS terrorist army, the United States will need to make some difficult decisions that will have significant downsides. Boosting Assad by attacking ISIS in Syria is a price the U.S. and its allies should be prepared to pay given the situation on the ground in Syria and American and regional security interests.
That is as far as we should go.
The U.S. and its allies should not cooperate with the Syrian or Iranian government to defeat ISIS because of the destabilizing impact of such actions and to avoid legitimizing these regimes.