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In Syria, the Enemy of America's Enemy Is Still a Lousy Friend

If the US aligns itself with the Assad regime to battle ISIS, it will only encourage the conditions that produced ISIS in the first place.
Photo by Vahid Salemi/AP

History is being rewritten. Syrian President Bashar Assad is about to emerge as a moderate peacemaker, a warrior against terror, and a secularist bulwark holding Islamist hordes at bay. His violence will be seen as no more than the tough love of a benevolent patriarch, eager to restore order amid spiraling chaos. The beast moving toward Bethlehem, it turns out, is really a dove.

These thoughts were not filched from the regime's PR dispatches. Nor did they originate from the political fringes, where the far left and far right have long portrayed Assad as a man warring against the same governments they loathe and/or feel oppressed by. No, these are the recent opinions of respectable mainstream voices.


The ball was set rolling by Ryan Crocker, the whiz diplomat who made his reputation as the US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan. In an article for the New York Times, he argued that it was "time to consider a future for Syria without Assad's ouster." His reason? "It is overwhelmingly likely that is what the future will be." His circular logic found few takers, though notable among them was former NSA and CIA chief Michael Hayden.

Crocker and Hayden represent the id of US foreign policy. The instincts they embody have often been kept in check by the civic values to which, in rhetoric if not in practice, every American leader pays homage. One cannot speak of human rights, rule of law, individual freedom, civil liberty, or self-determination and be seen openly pursuing policies that violate these principles. To change course, principles have to be reconciled with preferences.

Return to 'stability' might sound attractive after a decade of neoconservative chaos, but proponents forget that ISIS emerged as a consequence of US support for despotic regimes across the Middle East and North Africa.

Crudely defined, the US has no interests at stake in Syria, and the Obama administration was never enthusiastic about overthrowing Assad. It dithered long into the initial repression, and once events forced it into declaring a position, the gap between aspiration and action was never bridged. The foremost US concern — keeping weapons from falling into hands that might turn them on Israel — starved the most effective fighting forces of support. The Free Syrian Army withered, a vacuum was created, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gained.


ISIS, the product of an implicit policy, has now become the alibi for making the same policy explicit. According to the Daily Beast, the administration is already debating whether to embrace Assad as an ally in a war against terror. Obama will be reverting to his predecessor's policy; under George W. Bush, Assad held a "war on terror" franchise, Damascus a favored destination for CIA "rendition" flights.

Intellectuals are bending themselves out of shape to help the administration justify the unjustifiable. That members of the foreign policy establishment should revert to their affinity for "stability" imposed by strongmen is not entirely surprising; nor is it surprising that Assad's vaguely anti-imperial rhetoric should turn him into a cause célèbre for the far left. But the chorus has also been joined by far unlikelier figures.

David Lesch is a Trinity University professor of Middle East history who once had close links to the regime. He wrote Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, which recorded the inexcusable acts of repression that led Lesch to finally break with Assad — long before last year's chemical-weapons massacre in Ghouta. Since the publication of his book, at least 120,000 more people have been killed. This, curiously, has led Lesch to conclude that Assad is a "moderate" who holds the keys to peace.

By allying itself with the regime, the US will be making itself party to the suppression of the Syrian people's right to self determination.


Juan Cole, one of the world's finest Middle East scholars who has painstakingly recorded the horrors inflicted by the regime, runs the indispensable Informed Comment blog. In a recent post, he lists several reasons why the US must not do what it already is not doing — arm the Syrian rebels. But after rightly noting that an ISIS takeover of Damascus would be "a very, very bad outcome," he blandly states: "The West supported the Algerian military regime against the Islamic Salvation Front in the 1990s, despite the government's dirty war and similar crimes to those being committed by the Baathists in Syria." Prescription or prognosis? He never makes clear.

Far more clear in this regard is Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. In a New York Times op-ed, he writes: "The greatest threat to American interests in the region is ISIS, not Mr. Assad. To fight this enemy, Mr. Obama needs to call on others similarly threatened… above all, the political leader with the best-armed forces in the region, Mr. Assad." Mr. Assad's "best-armed forces" and resilience have also earned the admiration of the Nation's reliably obtuse Bob Dreyfuss.

After three years of serial atrocities, massacres, starvation sieges, torture, and rape, we face a surreal situation in which, instead of calls for accountability, Western intelligentsia are debating the rehabilitation of the monster who presided over this horror. It bespeaks a moral decay and failure of imagination when, in the name of expediency, some appear willing to burnish their "realist" credentials by condemning the nearly 10 million displaced Syrians to the indignities of stateless exile.


The inconvenient fact that the uprising was massive and popular is dealt with by pronouncing it already dead. The myriad civil society groups and the vast network of Local Coordination Committees go entirely unmentioned. Assad's opponents are presented as an undifferentiated mass; ISIS is lumped together with anti-Assad forces, even though ISIS has fought nearly all of its battles against the regime's opponents rather than against the regime itself.

These accounts present a false choice between the regime and ISIS — a comparison that works to the regime's advantage. Never mind that ISIS, repugnant as it is, has not nearly the regime's destructive capacity. As recent events have shown, its gains, unlike the regime's, are not met by indifference. Even in the unlikely event that Damascus were to fall to ISIS, its actions will be constrained by the kind of international mobilization that is already happening in Iraq.

But more significantly, by allying itself with the regime, the US will be making itself party to the suppression of the Syrian people's right to self determination. The administration cannot partner against "terror" with a force that its own State Department has described as "the kind of machinery of cruel death" unseen "since the Nazis." Return to "stability" might sound attractive after a decade of neoconservative chaos, but the proponents of this view forget that ISIS emerged in the first place as a consequence of US support for despotic regimes across the Middle East and North Africa.

The legitimate fear of black flags over the Levant is causing panic in Washington. But the short-term fixes being proposed will only burden the US with long-term woes. If ISIS is treated as a causeless symptom in need of a quick remedy, cynical alliances to quash it will seem attractive. But ISIS is the consequence of a failed policy, and it's the original sin of abandoning the revolution that demands redress. The US will never be secure if it allies itself with the tormentor of the Syrian people and condemns millions to the squalor of hostile refugee camps.

The only way the US can defeat ISIS without engendering blowback is to give meaningful support to the Syrian resistance.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War. Follow him on Twitter: @im_pulse