One might think that America’s policy toward Syria couldn’t get any worse, but the rise of extremists there is generating dangerous thinking in Western capitals. High-level advisers and former officials have recently started to talk about Bashar al-Assad as a lesser evil than whatever comes next; some even see him as a potential partner in fighting jihadi terrorists.
Rebuilding bridges with Mr. Assad, the reasoning goes, would allow Western intelligence agencies to penetrate and disrupt the activities of extremist groups and help identify the many hundreds of Western jihadis who are flocking there.
Such simplistic analysis whitewashes the Assad regime’s record. It could also lead the Obama administration, for whom success in Syria is seemingly measured in terms of how uninvolved it is, to revert to the narrow, reactive counterterrorism strategy it has adopted in other troubled countries, like Yemen.
The latest exponent of this reasoning is Ryan C. Crocker, a former American ambassador to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “We need to start talking to the Assad regime again,” he told The New York Times, referring to counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern. “Bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”
An increasing number of Western officials and analysts now cynically see Syria as, in Mr. Obama’s words “someone else’s civil war,” where bad guys (Al Qaeda and other Sunni jihadis) are killing other bad guys (Hezbollah and Shiite jihadis). The vital Western interest is to prevent their fight from spreading and Western jihadis from becoming a domestic threat.
Sunni jihadi groups are gaining a foothold. In particular, the “Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria” has grown in size, reach and ambition. The group has driven away activists, journalists and aid workers; killed local rebels; and imposed puritanical Islamic rule in several areas. Poorly armed Syrian rebels fighting on several fronts have struggled to contain the extremists; at times, they’ve reached uneasy accommodations or even joined forces with them against government troops — more out of opportunism and necessity than ideology.
This was all too predictable. Mr. Assad jailed and killed peaceful civilian activists but released many Salafis from prison soon after the uprising started, with the goal of altering the nature and strategy of the opposition. The West’s failure to train and equip Syrian rebels weakened them relative to the extremists. Most conveniently for Mr. Assad, jihadi groups have tarnished the Syrian revolution, validating the then-false narrative of Islamist terrorism he propagated in the early stages of the uprising.
Viewing Syria primarily or uniquely through a counterterrorism lens after two years of civil war is a monumental error. Renewed intelligence cooperation is exactly how Mr. Assad hopes to lure back Western support. Some European intelligence agencies have already resumed discussions with their Syrian counterparts. Mr. Assad himself reportedly offered such assistance to Mr. Obama through the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who recently visited Washington.
Offering information about Western hostages and Western jihadis, Mr. Assad calculates, will give rise to quid pro quos and bolster him just as the chemical weapons deal did. Presenting himself as pragmatic and magnanimous will force the West to reckon with its original sin of having opposed him. Engagement will shore up his legitimacy and further demoralize his internal foes.
Mr. Assad has successfully played such mind games before. He hoodwinked European and American officials after sending jihadi fighters to kill thousands of Iraqis — and many Americans — in Iraq, destabilizing Lebanon and building a nuclear reactor. Mr. Assad’s relationship with Sunni jihadi groups is long and well documented: He groomed and manipulated them not only in Iraq but also in Lebanon. Even today, there are strong suspicions that the regime’s intelligence has penetrated extremist groups.
Ultimately, Mr. Assad expects that the fear of future jihadi terrorism will make the world forget his massacres. That he may succeed after killing tens of thousands of his own people would be a damning indictment of Western policy. By now, his regime’s atrocities — which vastly surpass those of the rebels — and his crude sectarian strategies should have obliterated the long-held fallacy that he is secular because he dresses in Western clothes, has an unveiled wife and allows other sects to pray as long as they give up all other freedoms. In these circumstances, “secular” means nothing.
Beyond being morally bankrupt and politically unsound, restoring counterterrorism cooperation with the Assad regime will only exacerbate the jihadi problem. It will validate Sunni suspicions that the West was always in cahoots with Mr. Assad; it will drive more Syrians into jihadi hands; and it will make it more difficult to cultivate local partners to counter extremists.
The best counterterrorism strategy remains the empowerment of mainstream Syrian rebels as part of the broader, more assertive policy that the White House has repeatedly rejected.
Emile Hokayem is a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the author of Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant.