With the shocking progress of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, as well as the mass execution of up to 250 or more Syrian military personnel, the Assad regime is under growing pressure from the Islamic State and its allies to take control of the situation. It even reached out to suggest coordinating operations with the US would be possible. Quite frankly, the United State is never going to bolster the Assad regime. At best, US strikes against Islamic State forces in Syria would be conducted to support Western-friendly Free Syrian Army forces and, potentially, corral both the Islamic State and the Assad regime into a mutually destructive war. That said, the US and its allies are open to supporting the Syrian People, so Assad does have a better third option that helps him stay alive and prevent his rule from destabilizing the region.
The Islamic State, much like any extremist organization, is a threat to regional stability and the national security interests of countries around the world. While Iran, as well as other actors, has an interest in propping up the Assad Regime in order to support its ambitions to be a regional power with substantial influence over its neighbors, what fleeting benefit the Assad regime could potentially offer Iran in the distant future is dwarfed by the current threat of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Iran’s influence over Iraq clearly shows Middle Eastern nations can collaborate with the United States and still be influenced by Iran. Consequently, supporters of the Assad regime have a greater interest in seeing the US help contain the Islamic State than ensuring the Assad regime survives.
If the United States, its Western allies, and regional partners had the support of the Syrian military, the hazards of intervening in Syria with airstrikes would largely disappear. If Assad and the rest of his government were to leave power, the Obama Administration would be under serious political and diplomatic pressure to act against the Islamic State in Syria. The fortunate reality of the Free Syrian Army being commanded by forcer Syrian military leaders is that they are qualified to take control of Syrian forces in such a way that the West can have confidence knowing the Assad regime is honestly giving up power. Due to Iraq’s often-conflicting partnerships with both the United States and Iran, which is also linked to the Assad regime, there is even an opportunity to indirectly implement a coordinated strategy against the Islamic State.
What Bashar al-Assad and his most infamous officials need is a way out of Syria, which Iran could offer them asylum, so they can prepare to leave behind an intermediate leadership capable of maintaining what government functions are still being undertaken and transferring power to a transitional government. It must first, however, stop attacking its own citizens and Western supported Free Syrian Army forces then quickly move to develop an agreement with the Syrian National Council on how a power transfer might occur and what officials will stay behind to implement the transition, starting with the command of Syria’s armed forces. As Assad is likely to reject this solution, both his internal and external supporters need to recognize Assad has no future in Syria, thus they need to pressure and/or force him to leave before the gains made by the Islamic State are irreversible. For Iran, supporting the inevitable failure of the Assad regime now would move Syria toward stability quicker and earn Iran favor with the United States as both rivals struggle to mend fences.
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