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In Syria, The U.S. Weighs A Range Of Unpalatable Options

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad walk along a street in Mleiha, near the Damascus airport, during a tour organized by the Syrian government on Aug. 15.
Omar Sanadiki
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad walk along a street in Mleiha, near the Damascus airport, during a tour organized by the Syrian government on Aug. 15.

President Obama said Wednesday that the Islamic State is a cancer that threatens all governments in the Middle East. But that raises the question of what the U.S. could or should do.

Two former U.S. ambassadors to Syria, Robert Ford and Ryan Crocker, have advocated different approaches to a conflict where there are many different options. But none is appealing and there's no guarantee, or even a likelihood that U.S. action would ultimately determine the outcome.

Ford, who stepped down from the post in February, has wanted the U.S. to do more to arm moderate rebels, who are battling both President Bashar Assad's regime and Islamic State militants.

Crocker, on the other hand, has long argued that the Assad regime may be bad, but it doesn't pose nearly the same threat compared with the Islamic State, which previously called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

"I am no apologist for the Assad regime. I was there under father [Hafez Assad] and son [Bashar Assad]," says Crocker, who served as ambassador to Syria from 1998-2001. "They are a brutal bunch of bastards, without question. But in terms of our security, ISIS is by far the largest threat.

A Call To Strike In Syria And Iraq

Crocker also thinks the U.S. needs to launch airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria as well as Iraq — even if that means some coordination with Assad.

The Islamic State controls large swaths of territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq, and has declared a caliphate, or a single Muslim empire that does not recognize existing borders.

"Since they erased the Iraq-Syria border, we should take them up on it," says Crocker, "and go after them both in Iraq and in Syria. They don't respect the border, but neither should we."

Crocker, now the dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, says there is no need to form an open alliance with Assad, who the U.S. accuses of carrying out mass atrocities.

Meanwhile, Joshua Landis, a Syria analyst, notes that any action the U.S. might take could play into Assad's hands.

"It means helping his government, because any attempt to destroy ISIS, which owns a third of the country, is going to rebound to his benefit unless the other militias take that territory," says Landis, who teaches at the University of Oklahoma and runs the blog Syria Comment.

There are other analysts and former State Department officials who argue that the U.S. should be doing much more to help moderate militias that are battling both the Islamic State and the Assad regime.

But Landis is skeptical.

"We don't have allies that are strong enough to replace the Syrian state and stabilize the country," he says.

So that poses a big dilemma for the U.S.

"If you work with Assad, you damage your reputation, but you might be able to help the Syrian people not die as much," Landis says. "If you destroy the Syrian state, what's left of it, you are going to get more chaos, and more ISIS."

Andrew Tabler, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes this debate and the Syrian conflict will play out for some time to come. He argues there are moral and practical reasons to avoid dealing with Assad.

"The biggest issue standing in the way of working with the Assad regime, even tacitly, is the real operational limitations of the Assad regime's forces," he says. "They are not heavily present in the eastern part of the country where ISIS is dominant. And when they fight ISIS directly, and they do sometimes, they are not very good at retaking and holding territory."

The U.S. is also concerned that the Syrian government has allowed the Islamic State to flourish, perhaps to show the world that those opposing the regime are terrorists.

Tabler says Obama has no good choices, but should at least be asking: "What can dislodge ISIS forces from that area? And the answer is, I think, working with moderates, including tribes in that area, very much like we are doing in Iraq."

But Obama has been far more cautious about getting involved in Syria since the war erupted there three years ago. And so far, he's given no indication that he's considering a major move in Syria.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.