The US and its allies must be prepared to work with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to have any hope of defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, one of Britain’s most senior MPs has warned.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind – the chairman of parliament’s intelligence and security committee and a former foreign secretary and defence secretary – told the Financial Times that the “ghastly” killing of US journalist James Foley this week underscored the need to act against the militant jihadi group, whose rise to power in the Middle East has so far gone largely unchecked.
“[Isis] need to be eliminated and we should not be squeamish about how we do it,” Sir Malcolm said.
In recent months, Isis has seized a vast swath of territory across northern Iraq, but its core power base remains in Syria.
“Sometimes you have to develop relationships with people who are extremely nasty in order to get rid of people who are even nastier,” Sir Malcolm said, referring to working with Mr Assad’s dictatorship, which is an international pariah after it carried out brutal attacks on civilians in the civil war that has divided Syria and allowed Isis to flourish.
Any consideration of working with or alongside the Assad dictatorship has so far been completely absent from pronouncements in Washington and Europe on how to best deal with Isis. Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said on Wednesday that Mr Assad was “part of the problem”.
Sir Malcolm was previously one of the most outspoken members of parliament in calling for the UK to intervene with military force against Mr Assad’s regime – an option he and others pressed for in the wake of a devastating chemical weapons attack by Mr Assad’s forces on civilians in Ghouta one year ago.
“We have to deal with facts on the ground, not as we would want them to be but as they are,” Sir Malcolm said, acknowledging that it was a deeply unpalatable choice. He likened the need to work with Mr Assad to the way in which the allied powers worked with Joseph Stalin in the second world war.
“The idea that we can have a military operation in Iraq that won’t have a Syrian dimension is inconceivable. For Syria to become an Isis safe haven – that is ludicrous . . . I don’t see how we can avoid it.”
On Tuesday it emerged that a secret US special forces mission in Syria – aimed at freeing several western hostages from entrenched Isis positions near Raqqa – had failed in early July.
Mr Assad’s regime has recently increased its activity against Isis after months of quiescence – which many have seen as a cynical ploy to divide-and-rule.
The Syrian government has hitherto pursued a deliberate strategy of ignoring Isis – and in some instances even helping them – as part of a strategy to undermine the moderate Syrian rebel movement, western intelligence officials have said. The Assad regime is also thought to have heavily infiltrated the group.
A growing number of military and intelligence analysts share Sir Malcolm’s views.
Even those who are sceptical as to the merits of siding Mr Assad’s brutal dictatorship admit that intervening against Isis in any way could likely be a filip for the Syrian regime.
“Isis in Syria is the elephant in the room,” said Shashank Joshi, an Islamic extremism expert at the Royal United Services Institute. “At the very least, the US and its allies are going to be relying on the Syrian regime as some sort of anvil to hammer Isis against.”