An alliance between U.S. forces and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to eliminate Islamic militants would play right into the hands of the brutal authoritarian leader, experts say.
Reports indicate that Assad helped facilitate the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), the jihadist group that now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria and recently beheaded American journalist James Foley.
The International Business Times reported over the weekend that U.S. intelligence agencies have provided Assad’s forces with information—using the German intelligence service as an intermediary—that would help them target ISIL leaders in airstrikes. Agence France Presse (AFP) then reported on Tuesday that the United States was offering intelligence to Syria through Iraqi and Russian agents.
Foreign drones conducted surveillance over eastern Syria on Monday, according to a Syrian human rights group, while Syrian warplanes targeted ISIL in the same region on Tuesday.
Both White House and State Department officials have vigorously denied the reports.
"As a matter of U.S. policy, we have not recognized" Assad as the leader of Syria, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One. "There are no plans to change that policy and there are no plans to coordinate with the Assad regime."
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf also tweeted: "Claim in this story that US is sharing intel with the Assad regime is false."
While U.S. officials publicly deny that they are partnering with Assad against ISIL, some foreign policy experts are pushing the Obama administration to do so. The terrorist group has attracted thousands of foreign fighters who could return to Europe or the United States and launch attacks, U.S. intelligence officials say.
Other experts warn that allying with Assad would preserve his grip on power despite the administration’s long-stated goal of urging him to step down.
Frederic Hof, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former adviser on Syria for the Obama administration, wrote recently that Assad appears to have formed a tacit alliance with ISIL to defeat more moderate rebels also battling his government.
"By reportedly conducting airstrikes on ISIS positions in eastern Syria, the Assad regime is begging for readmission to polite society by attacking the very forces whose existence it has facilitated over the years," Hof said. "Yet it is doing so in a selective way that preserves its de facto collaboration with ISIS in western Syria against the nationalist Syrian opposition."
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels say their opposition movement is now on the verge of collapse as both Assad’s forces and ISIL militants converge on one of their last strongholds in the northwestern city of Aleppo.
That appears to have been Assad’s strategy all along, according to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal.
Syrian intelligence assisted militants in al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—the precursor to ISIL—with travel across the Syrian border into Iraq as long as they pledged to only attack U.S. troops during the Iraq War, according to the Journal. Assad’s regime also released several high-level terrorist detainees in May 2011 that would later lead to jihadist groups, including ISIL.
Additionally, ISIL sold crude to Assad’s government as militants seized oil-rich provinces in northern and eastern Syria, according to a January report in the New York Times. Both Syrian forces and ISIL have also cooperated in the fight against nationalist rebels in Aleppo.
"When the Syrian army is not fighting the Islamic State, this makes the group stronger," Izzat Shahbandar, a former Iraqi lawmaker and ally of Assad who met with him in Damascus, told the Journal. "And sometimes, the army gives them a safe path to allow the Islamic State to attack the FSA and seize their weapons."
"It's a strategy to eliminate the FSA and have the two main players face each other in Syria: Assad and the Islamic State," Shahbandar added. "And now [Damascus] is asking the world to help, and the world can't say no."
Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem said on Monday that Assad’s government is "ready for cooperation and coordination at the regional and international level to fight terrorism," though he added that U.S. airstrikes against ISIL in Syria without the knowledge of the regime would be an "act of aggression." U.S. officials say they have no plans to work with Assad if airstrikes are ordered.
Critics of the administration’s Syria policy say it has essentially enabled Assad to consolidate power, whether the United States partners with him directly or not. President Obama declined to order airstrikes on Assad’s forces after U.S. officials accused them of launching a chemical weapons attack last August, and the administration has so far provided scant support to the FSA rebels or other groups that could challenge Assad.
"Assad’s brand of poison is just as lethal as that of ISIS," said Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq during the George W. Bush administration, in an email. "Perhaps it’s time to stop asking which poison tastes better at any particular moment and instead craft a strategy that goes after anti-American extremists, regardless of whether their PO Box is in Tehran or Doha."