August 26, 2014 2:54 pm

Look to Syria to halt the deadly march of Isis

The Assad government may be evil – but it is a lesser evil, writes Richard Haass
A picture released on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency on April 28, 2014 shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Assad has registered to stand in next month's presidential election, which he is widely expected to win, parliament speaker Mohammed al-Lahham said. AFP PHOTO / HO / SYRIAN PRESIDENCY FACEBOOK PAGE == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / SYRIAN PRESIDENCY FACEBOOK PAGE" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS == HO -/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

Bashar al-Assad: a quandary for the west

The US and much of the world have been rudely awakened to the fact that the group formerly known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is both a dangerous terrorist organisation, and considerably more than that. The deadly reality of its capabilities and ambitions is captured in the latest title by which Isis styles itself: the Islamic State. It is a de facto government with evolving borders that seeks to impose its vision of society on the millions of people over whom it rules. And, as it has dramatically shown since the capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, it seeks to expand its borders and the numbers subject to its control.

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The biggest question now facing western states is what to do about Syria. Iraq’s neighbour is where Isis established itself and from where it directs its operations. The fact is that the world cannot defeat Isis in Iraq, or limit its potential elsewhere, if it continues to enjoy sanctuary in Syria. Yet this is a country whose president, Bashar al-Assad, stands accused by the west of war crimes as part of an onslaught against his own citizens that has fuelled a conflict costing almost 200,000 lives.

The first thing that needs to be done, despite White House reluctance, is to make good on what General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, suggested last week. The US should attack Isis targets across the border from Iraq inside Syria. More could and should be done, too, to slow the flow of recruits, arms and dollars.

Yet even with support from US special forces, Kurdish peshmerga, Sunni tribesmen and Iraqi ground troops operating at home – together with attempts to close borders and banks – there are limits to what air power can achieve. What is needed are ground forces operating inside Syria. This is where things get complicated. Very complicated.

In principle there are four options. The US and European governments could provide ground forces. But, with widespread hostility to renewed military involvement following wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is a political non-starter. An expeditionary force would be an undertaking of enormous cost and risk, with no prospect of speedy success and likely to yield at best only limited progress. Given public attitudes, it is not going to happen.

A second option would be to create a pan-Arab expeditionary force, one with units from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and possibly Egypt. Organising and deploying such a force would be extremely difficult. It might also trigger intervention from other outsiders with a stake in Syria’s future, including Iran. If this were to happen, what is already a bad situation could become worse.

A second option would be to create a pan-Arab expeditionary force, one with units from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and possibly Egypt

The third option is to create an internal Syrian opposition, building on elements that already exist. But this, too, would take a good deal of time, and it would be a tall order for any such force to contend successfully with both the Syrian government and Isis.

The fourth option is to turn to the regime of Mr Assad to take the lead in defeating Isis. This would mean accepting for the foreseeable future a regime that has committed war crimes; that is supported by Iran and Russia, with which the west has considerable strategic differences; and that is opposed by countries, including Saudi Arabia, with which the US has more often than not co-operated.

Such a policy change would be costly but not as costly as a scenario in which Isis could use Syrian territory from which to mount attacks on the region and beyond. The Assad government may be evil – but it is a lesser evil than Isis, and a local one. Such an accommodation would require a great deal of diplomacy if it were to succeed. Understandings would have to be reached with Damascus, with the mostly secular opposition, much depleted by three years of brutal battles against Isis and the regime; and with outside backers (mainly Iran and Saudi Arabia) about how Syria was to be run, both now and in the future, and what would happen in liberated areas.

As is often the case, the more attractive options may not be feasible, while the option that could prove feasible would present distinct difficulties. The calculus argues for determining whether creating a pan-Arab force or developing a viable internal opposition are possible in the near future; if not, the US and Europe may have to live with, and even work with, a regime they have for years sought to remove. What is certain is that it should be a priority to convene a meeting of all the relevant governments – which, if initial discussions with other countries show promise, should include the Assad regime – to determine whether a common policy towards Syria and Isis can be forged.

The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations

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