WASHINGTON — The swift and brutal rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has made the Syrian regime a lesser evil in the region, some foreign policy realists are now saying — and they have begun to make the case that the U.S. national interest now lies in looking past the crimes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The proposal poses deep moral and political problems for the Obama administration, which has compared Assad's slaughter of his own people to the Holocaust. Today is the first anniversary of the Assad regime's chemical attack on Ghouta, an event that nearly shocked the West into military intervention in Syria. But despite the unlikelihood of any formal alliance with Assad, increasingly vocal realists say the threat posed by ISIS to the United States is far greater than that posed by the dictator. The previously unthinkable proposal has been gaining more traction lately, especially in the wake of ISIS' execution of journalist James Foley and direct threats to America in general.
And while the "realist" foreign policy thinkers floating it do not guide the administration's strategy, Obama is widely seen as sharing elements of their worldview; he was described recently in The New Yorker as "basically a realist — but he feels bad about it."
"I know of no one who says that Assad ever posed a direct threat to the U.S. homeland," said Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University professor and terrorism analyst. "I've seen no evidence to ever suggest that, going back to his father. It makes obvious sense in my mind, if the U.S. is going to side with the militants or with Assad, for us to side with Assad.
"The big objection to that is a normative one. People are appalled by the suggestion of the US working with a dictator who's massacred so many of his people. And yet Assad poses a threat to his own population, not to ours.
"I think there may be an opportunity for the US to work with Assad against ISIS."
It is not clear what such a deal would look like operationally, though the U.S. could conceivably cut off aid to the moderate rebels it's been backing and share intelligence about ISIS with the regime, as well as work with Assad's forces to carry out air strikes against ISIS on Syrian soil.
Some argue that a realignment could have the effect of also convincing Assad to stop killing Syrians.
"What if, due to a deal, [Assad] stopped slaughtering his own people?" former CIA analyst Nada Bakos said on Twitter Wednesday night. Journalist Michael Weiss had asked, "To those advocating a deal with Assad to defeat ISIS, explain how this is any less barbarous," with a link to an article about new evidence of regime atrocities.
Bakos said in an email to BuzzFeed that the goal should be to stabilize the situation in Syria, giving actors in the region a better chance at vanquishing ISIS.
"I don't believe Assad's forces can achieve that single-handedly and we aren't about to partner with him, nor should we," Bakos said. "However, arming the rebels at this point just means a longer, protracted war that is already full of proxies. It would be almost endless. If we can identify why we are taking action, we can then decide on our best course of action (which is likely still pretty awful). Our goal should be to stop the chaos, but sometimes all we can do from the outside is just help contain it."
Stephen Walt, the realist Harvard professor and an often controversial critic of interventionist U.S. foreign policy, said it was unlikely that the U.S. would publicly strike a deal with Assad.
"If ISIS continues to be a problem, or if it gains more ground in Syria, I can imagine the United States quietly reducing its support for Assad's other rivals so that the regime can focus more on thwarting the jihadi threat," Walt said. "But Assad's own conduct and the administration's past rhetoric would make it very hard to embrace his government publicly, even as the lesser of several evils."
"There is no consensus among realists on what to do with Assad and Syria, but there are a number arguing that to destroy ISIS, the US needs to team up with Syria, Russia, and Iran," said Steve Clemons, the Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and a prominent liberal foreign policy voice.
Clemons argues that ISIS is part of an "extreme edge" of the broader battle for supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, so "a temporary partnership with Syria could help in checking ISIS but would not be definitive in destroying the Islamic State."
The idea has other built-in difficulties. Effectively taking sides with Assad would force the U.S. to also seek cooperation from Syria patrons Iran and Russia, something that in Russia's case would not be easy, said Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest.
"It's not something that is going to be easy to do," Simes said. "A lot of things have happened in Syria between the U.S. and Syria, between the U.S. and Russia, which obviously make a negotiated solution in Syria more difficult to achieve.
"It is not in our interest to defeat Assad as long as groups like ISIS will be winners."
Even former top government officials on Syria, like former Ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker, have advocated shifting U.S. policy away from getting rid of Assad.
"It is time to consider a future for Syria without Assad's ouster, because it is overwhelmingly likely that is what the future will be," Crocker wrote in December. The U.S. must "consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse."
This week, he said that the Assad family "are a brutal bunch of bastards, without question. But in terms of our security, ISIS is by far the largest threat."
The idea is, unsurprisingly, attracting criticism.
"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," wrote Middle East analyst Emile Hokayem in The New York Times. "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."
But some, like Chas Freeman, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia whose candidacy for chairman of the National Intelligence Council was scuttled over his criticism of Israel and defenses of Chinese authoritarianism, are arguing that the U.S. has already effectively entered into a counterterrorism partnership with Assad.
"De facto, we are operating together at least in the context of ISIS and Iraq," Freeman said. "We are operating in parallel with the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and Iran."