Several members of the French parliament sat down for an off-the-books meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday, to discuss a possible working arrangement with the dictator to fight jointly against the Islamic State. The meeting was swiftly condemned by Prime Minister Manuel Valls and President Francois Hollande, who warned that the clandestine sit-down could warrant sanctions against the MPs, who represented several different political parties.
The French incident comes at a time when officials in several countries are engaging in whispered debates about this very topic. In 2012, as Syria was falling into a brutal civil war, many Western states closed their embassies in Damascus and supported the Free Syrian Army rebels fighting against Assad. In the U.S., Assad’s brutality –exemplified by his use of chemical weapons against civilians — became a cornerstone of the rationale for military assistance to oust his regime.
But some people see the rise of the Islamic State as a game changer, and Assad as a necessary evil in the fight against ISIS. The world’s focus has shifted dramatically from Syria’s civil war to the bloody campaign launched by the self-identified caliphate, whose ideology seems to rule out no form of militaristic destruction. ISIS presents a geopolitical emergency so urgent, the argument goes, that Assad seems good enough by comparison to play nice with. In addition, an Assad truce would provide on-the-ground cooperation on ISIS’ home turf, and with a government whose stake in how ISIS plays out is inherent and unavoidable. After all, what’s a few barrel bombs next to high-production value beheadings on YouTube?
This is clearly the viewpoint espoused by the scolded French MPs, but is rumored to be much more prevalent among diplomatic back channels. U.S. President Barack Obama — as well as several Western diplomats — are now said to be flirting with the option of cutting their losses in Syria and making overtures to Assad in order to combat what is seen as a greater evil.
This option may seem tempting for Western states fatigued by the political costs of incessant foreign wars. But critics are reluctant to embrace the idea of Assad as a bedfellow, and fear such a collaboration could cause more serious problems down the line.
As former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford notes, it is unwise to completely separate the Assad regime from ISIS for the sake of analysis. After all, he says, Assad’s brutal government sparked the very disability that helped facilitate ISIS’ success in Syrian territory. Even if ISIS seems like the more pressing problem now, validating Assad’s leadership does nothing to alleviate the cause of the problem.
Furthermore, many analysts argue that it is surely within Assad’s interests to keep ISIS going as long as possible. The regime no doubt benefits from the deflected Western attention, which weakens the hand of Syrian rebels. As one Syrian businessman expressed to Time Magazine, ISIS has never directly threatened Damascus, and the jihadists have provided salary and security to citizens now off of Assad’s plate. From his perspective, the Free Syrian Army is easily the more pressing concern.
Still, despite the West’s past support for the rebels, they hardly make a coherent ally. Their lack of a plan for governance has been a consistent challenge for the region. The dream scenario of most analysts — a Syria helmed by democratic plurality — is still very far away.