If President Obama is truly serious about trying to "degrade and destroy" the Islamic State without committing U.S. combat soldiers, then his administration must not only ignore the naive admonitions about inadvertently aiding the Syrian government, but it should actively work with Syria to eliminate ISIS. As unpalatable as that sounds, the prospect of ISIS existing indefinitely is unacceptable and would represent a long-term threat to the region and civilized society in general. That is to say, the White House should reverse its current Syria policy.
In an editorial this week, The New York Times stated the obvious by saying U.S. airstrikes on ISIS-held Syrian territory could "solidify Mr. Assad’s grip on power," and that this would be "potentially perilous." An op-ed for CNN voiced similar concerns and gave a completely unworkable seven-pronged scheme for wading through this river of muck and coming out clean on the other side. And last month, Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) wrote that the president's strategy must require "an end to the conflict in Syria, and a political transition there, because the regime of President Bashar al-Assad will never be a reliable partner against ISIS."
Though these critiques come from different places on the political spectrum, they are all completely detached from reality, as is the overall national conversation about fighting ISIS, of which these clumsy commentaries are byproducts. The U.S. and Syria share a common enemy in ISIS, and so inevitably, almost any action that weakens ISIS is good for the Assad the regime. To think that the Obama administration can fight ISIS while simultaneously undermining the Assad regime is not only silly, but it would be downright dangerous to attempt it.
Undoubtedly, Assad is a brutal dictator who has presided over the deaths of some 200,000 people in trying to maintain his hold on power since the beginning of the country's civil war in 2011. But he's also something else: a known and containable quantity. Since he took power 14 years ago, Syria has committed no overt acts of aggression and has arguably done less to fund and support Islamic terrorism around the world than longtime U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and other U.S. Gulf state allies, which is actually where much of ISIS' funding comes from.
But more than this, the last thing anyone needs is another power vacuum in an Arab country. The disasters in Egypt and Libya are instructive enough. While it's completely understandable to want to see Assad out of power, any efforts to oust him before eliminating ISIS would run the risk of creating such a power vacuum, which ISIS would desperately attempt to fill. In the absence of a resolute Assad regime, ISIS would be more likely to do so.
President Obama's anti-ISIS strategy is sufficient for the time being. Airstrikes, combined with the arming and sharing of intelligence with the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga forces may very well succeed into forcing an ISIS retreat, ideally out of Iraq altogether. And that most likely means a retreat into Syria where the U.S. military believes at least two-thirds of ISIS fighters are right now. But Obama's plan is to destroy ISIS, not simply concentrate it in Syria. And it's quite unlikely that the Kurds would keep fighting ISIS forces after they've driven the group out of Kurdish territory in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, it also remains to be seen whether these supposedly "moderate" Syrian rebel forces the U.S. is arming have what it takes to defeat ISIS decisively. Making matters more complicated, some 20 of these rebel groups have signed a pact to fight ISIS and the Assad regime simultaneously. For a moment, let's assume they somehow succeed on both fronts. Which one of these groups will take the mantle in Syria, and more importantly, how moderately will they govern?
Ever since ISIS released a video of American journalist James Foley's beheading, it has been trying to goad the U.S. into waging a ground war, not because ISIS fighters think they can win, but rather because becoming martyrs while fighting American infidels would for them be the ultimate honor. However, there is already an army that would be all too happy to eliminate ISIS, and that's Assad's army -- thousands of members of which have been killed by ISIS, often in mass executions and beheadings in videos posted online. Assad's army would like nothing more than to do what needs to be done to eliminate ISIS, and that's kill all of them -- something that U.S. soldiers might feel morally constrained from doing. Syria's army has fought ISIS to a stalemate for three years. All it needs is the intelligence and the weaponry necessary to retake the territory it's lost to ISIS militants so it can go about the nasty business of exterminating them.
Supporting horrible dictators is nothing new for the U.S. After the Soviet Union invaded and occupied eastern Poland following the German blitzkrieg in September 1939, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced the U.S.S.R. under Josef Stalin as a "dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world." Yet by October 1941, the U.S. was sending aid to the Soviets as part of the Lend-Lease act. When the U.S. entered the war two months later, the Americans began coordinating directly with the country Ronald Reagan would later deem the "evil empire" at a time when it was markedly less evil than it had been under Stalin. Of course, the cooperation was only temporary and was forged to achieve a common objective, but it worked, and it did not prevent the U.S. from enacting a successful strategy of containment against the Soviets after annulling its marriage of convenience.
While Stalin was the worst of the worst who received U.S. support (albeit temporarily), there are plenty of other rogues in the gallery of American allies past and present: Franco, the House of Saud, Suharto, Pinochet, the Shah, Saddam, Diem, Somoza, Noriega, Trujillo, Marcos, Saleh, Musharraf, Déby, Ben-Ali, and on, and on, and on. So let's not pretend that by supporting Assad, the U.S. would somehow be deviating from a history of not supporting dictatorial regimes while unfailingly backing human rights everywhere. Diplomacy is messy, and achieving complex geopolitical objectives is even messier. The U.S. could send its men and women into Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS through a long and arduous campaign, but is it really worth it when there's already an army in the region that has the will but not yet the means to accomplish this?
The answer is no. Support the Syrian government, eliminate ISIS, and keep Americans out of harm's way.
Image credit: BBC News