There is now no question that the United States is about to get a lot more involved in Iraq (and perhaps Syria) than President Obama had ever intended. So far, the administration has made it clear that the goal is to defeat ISIS, but it has been more difficult determining how to make that happen. The administration has not publicly offered much in the way of what its strategy is other than to say that a broad international coalition is necessary to crush ISIS. Here is a question: Will Syria be part of that coalition? That sounds crazy after Bashar al Assad has killed 190,000 of his own people and made three million of them refugees. Hasn’t virtually everyone inside the Beltway declared that “Assad must go”? Still, the issue lingers. There has been some speculation that the United States is coordinating with Bashar al Assad via the Emiratis and last winter there were mysterious reports of Western intelligence officers reaching out to Damascus. Who knows what to make of these stories, yet it is clear that serious, but cold-hearted people both within the United States government and outside of it have advanced the idea of working with Assad “because the alternative [i.e. ISIS] is worse.” This is a losing proposition and among the worst policy recommendations to surface since Syria’s descent into bloodshed began three summers ago.
The belief that Assad can be helpful is nothing new in Washington—or a variety of other capitals in Europe and the Middle East—but it has never been more than a chimera. During one of those unnervingly subdued days in Washington after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, I ran into a senior Bush administration official who graduated from Vassar a year or two before me. I was surprised to see him given all that was going on, but it seems that long-standing dental appointments take precedent over even national security emergencies. After exchanging pleasantries, I offered him some unsolicited advice, “I know the administration is talking about working with Damascus against al-Qaeda. Tell whoever you need to tell: The Syrians will [expletive] you in the end.” That statement is as true today as it was 13 years ago. There has long been a clear pattern to Syrian statecraft: Syria’s leaders accommodate their opponents just enough to keep them at bay without ever surrendering the ability to do harm to the same said opponents. It is smart and it has proven successful, which makes one wonder why anyone would ever believe that they could get something done with the Assads.
Examples of Syrian duplicity in which Damascus is discreetly helpful in one area, but causes trouble—most often death and destruction—in another abound. Where to start? How about the entire occupation of Lebanon? Syrian forces put an end to the Lebanese civil war, but this was hardly a function of altruism. Lebanon has paid a steep price and will continue to pay for Syria’s occupation for generations. Then there is the way in which the Syrians have scrupulously maintained the armistice on the Golan Heights, but nevertheless enabled Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Of course, Hezbollah was a response to Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon, but it was also through the group that the Syrians sought to inflict pain on the Israelis, spilling mostly Lebanese blood in the process. The Syrians also hosted an all-star cast of terrorists, rejectionists, and evil-doers over many years including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Abdullah Ocalan who is responsible for launching a war against Turkey in 1984. When the Turks threatened to invade Syria in 1998, the late Hafiz al Assad expelled Ocalan and left him to his fate—he is now imprisoned on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara—but PKK networks in Syria remained, though they stayed dormant until 2002. Still, their very existence gave Assad the option of harming the Turks, if necessary. Finally, there is the example of Iraq. The Syrians got high marks from the Bush administration on al-Qaeda, but nevertheless allowed Iraqi Ba’athists refuge in Syria and permitted young men from all over the world who wanted to wage war against the United States to make their way through Syria to Iraq. How many Americans and Iraqis were killed and grievously wounded as a result?
Of course, in the abstract most everyone seems a lot better than Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is a pretty easy case for those who advocate working with the Syrians:
- Assad is a very bad guy, but he does not have that nihilist, cosmic view of the world that seems to be at the heart of ISIS. He is a problem, but one that can be contained.
- He is secular.
- He is fighting the same people whom the United States and its allies are fighting in Iraq.
- Assad’s killing is odious, but he is wreaking havoc in Syria, which does not much threaten U.S. interests directly. One can imagine an accommodation with Assad.
This is all true enough, but it is stunningly ahistorical. Assad, who has killed and brutalized his own people for three years, is no friend or ally even for the sake of expediency. He may not have that expansionist view that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has, but how different are the two leaders? Their methods are quite similar: The application of horrific violence to force people (many of them innocents) to submit to their rule.
Foreign policy and war are messy, but the United States can fight ISIS without Bashar al Assad, of all people. The alternative is worse. I guarantee it.