Islamic State could force some strange alliances

This undated image posted by the Raqqa Media Center, a Syrian opposition group, on Monday, June 30, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State during a parade with a missile in Raqqa, Syria.

One of the strangest ways that the Islamic State has forced us to rethink the Middle East is also one of the saddest: There is now a common line of thought that says the United States could ally itself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime to fight the extremist group also known as ISIS and ISIL.

"I am no apologist for the Assad regime," Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said last week. "But in terms of our security, ISIS is by far the largest threat." Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University professor and terror analyst, is among those who have been vocal in pushing the possibility. "Washington also needs to consider how best to protect the American population," Abrahms told The Washington Post.

While it remains an unlikely possibility, the idea that the United States would directly work with Assad horrifies and insults many. Few doubt that his regime has committed numerous atrocities during the Syrian civil war, and the idea of allying with his government at this point strikes some as absurd.

It also seems absurd given another obvious choice that seems to be getting relatively scant attention: working with the other Syrian opposition groups to fight both Assad and the Islamic State. These opposition groups certainly don't want the United States to side with Assad, but they do want to help fight the Islamic State and advocate a strong role for themselves.

"The Syrian Opposition fully supports a comprehensive U.S.-led campaign to launch military strikes in Syria against the Islamic State terrorist army and al-Qaida affiliates," said Oubai Shahbandar, an adviser to the Free Syria Foreign Mission in Washington.

Shahbandar sees intervention with Assad as absurd. "Assad was a key ingredient in the rise of the Islamic State," he said. "He and his regime turned Syria into a launching pad for terrorism over the years and fostered the environment in which transnational terrorist forces grew in the country."

The argument is persuasive. Writing for the New York Times, Syrian journalist Hassan Hassan points out that Syria didn't attack Islamic State-held cities with the same intensity saved for other rebel cities, and that the regime has bought oil from the group. Assad's decision to avoid fighting the Islamic State may have been driven by a desire for it to overtake the more secular groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, that were more palatable to the West.

Right now, however, its not clear exactly how plausible U.S. strikes against the Islamic State within Syria would be without some kind of approval, tacit or otherwise, from Assad. The Syrian government has warned that unilateral strikes against the Islamic State on Syrian soil would be seen as an act of "aggression," though it has indicated it is open to some kind of cooperation.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, argues that a key problem is that the more secular rebel groups don't have the support they would need to actually control Syria.

"They're great. I like them all," Landis said of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, "[but] if you can put those people in power in Syria, you've really pulled off a coup." Landis also argued that many of the other Islamist groups in Syria have similar sectarian, anti-Shiite views as the Islamic State. Speaking of Hasseen Aloosh, the Islamic Front political leader recently singled out by former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, Landis says he is "no different than ISIS, really, except he's a Syrian."

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