Are We on the Same Side as Bashar al-Assad Now?

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June 26 2014 1:00 PM

Assad’s Path Back to Respectability

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Friend and foe?

Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

The major development in Iraq today is the Syrian military launching airstrikes within Iraq. The strikes were apparently not coordinated with the Iraqi government, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki welcomed them anyway.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

The merging of the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields puts the U.S. in an awkward position, given that it is still nominally supporting the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s government. Just three weeks ago, national security adviser Susan Rice suggested the U.S. would be upping its support to the anti-Assad rebels.

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White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged that the airstrikes in Iraq had taken place but was adamant that “The solution to the threat confronting Iraq is not the intervention of the Assad regime,” blaming ISIS’s recent rise to power on Assad’s violence against his own people.

For now, open cooperation between Syria and the U.S. appears unlikely. In fact, the rumbles from Congress suggest that the crisis may lead the U.S. to increase its support of the non-ISIS rebels. (Update, June 26, 2014: Obama has now asked Congress for $500 million to train and equip the moderate opposition in Syria.)

All the same, it seems possible at this point that the crisis in Iraq could provide Assad’s government with a path back from international pariah to a bit of respectability, and the once-unthinkable “case for Assad” is now becoming a mainstream position in the United States.

Mousab Alhamadee and Jonathan Landay of McClatchy write, “Assad could point to the airstrikes to press his argument that he’s indispensable in the fight against radical Islam and demand that the United States and its European allies reconsider their demand for his departure from power as part of a settlement to Syria’s civil war.”

For the most part, Assad tolerated the rise of ISIS in recent months in a bid to divide and stigmatize the rebels. He has now begun bombing them at the exact moment that the U.S. and Europe have become increasingly alarmed about the group’s rise.

A bit less than a year ago, it seemed extremely likely that the U.S. would drop bombs on Assad’s military. Today the U.S. is seriously considering dropping bombs on Assad’s enemies. And Assad has succeeded in this turnaround while continuing the wanton slaughter of Syrian civilians and possibly continuing to use chemical weapons.

The Syrian leader’s actions may have plunged an entire region into irreparable chaos, but in terms of pure self-preservation, he looks pretty shrewd right now.

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