Syria's air strikes against Isis place it – temporarily at least – in a loose, uneasy coalition with the US, UK, Iraq and Iran
One shouldn't overstate the significance of the reported Syrian air strikes against Isis positions on the Iraq-Syria border earlier this week. Yes, in a sense, this latest development does place the Assad regime alongside the United States, Britain, Iran and the Iraqi government in an extremely loose, temporary and uneasy anti-Isis coalition. No, Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to be seen in Brussels signing treaty papers to join Nato, or to have dinner with the Queen in the foreseeable future. What this latest development does do, however, is shed some light on the nature of the calculations that shape the west's approach to the various players in the Middle East.
To judge from history, there is no reason to suppose that Damascus and the Atlantic powers are implacably at odds on points of deep moral or political principle. When the Assad regime waded into Lebanon in the 1970s to crush the Palestinian and Lebanese left, it did so with the tacit approval of the United States. The suppression of a previous Syrian uprising in the early 1980s, marked most famously by the massacre of around 20,000 people in Hama in 1982, did nothing to disqualify Damascus from joining the US-led alliance formed to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. Won't the regime's particularly savage response to the attempted revolution of 2011, and its apparently repeatedunleashing of chemical weapons against civilian targets, finally place it beyond the pale for western policy makers? Unlikely. Recall that it wasn't Saddam Hussein's genocidal use of chemical weapons against the Kurds but his invasion of Kuwait and threat to the western-oriented monarchies of the Gulf that caused him to fall out of favour with the US and UK.
Of course, Syria represents a force independent of and sometimes challenging to western power in the Middle East. Its previous support for Hamas and current support for Hezbollah testify to that, as do its alliances with Russia and Iran. Undoubtedly Washington and London would like to see Assad replaced with a more friendly, pliable alternative, if that were possible. But one explanation for the Atlantic powers' failure to intervene more forcefully in Syria – as they certainly could if they wished – is the fact that, in their view, there is no such viable alternative available. It is Isis and other jihadi groups that are seen as best placed to exploit the weakening or toppling of Assad, not those forces preferred by the west.
There is little doubt that Assad has played on this as part of a survival strategy in which he presents himself to the world as a moderate, secular force fighting a war on terrorism (a posture rich in irony given that his regime has established itself as the region's leading state terrorist over the past three years). In this respect, Syrian air strikes against Isis, just as the latter's advances in Iraq threaten to unleash a regional conflagration, are likely to be part of Assad's bid to sell himself as the least unpalatable of the available alternatives. And if uncoordinated and informal but nevertheless complementary moves from Syria, the US, the UK and Iran can serve to cauterise the wound in Iraq in a way that all sides feel serve their respective interests, then there is no reason why such tacit cooperation shouldn't take place. After all, contrary to the PR and propaganda of both sides, Assad is no principled anti-imperialist, and the US and UK do not pick their allies and partners on the basis of their humanitarian credentials.
David Wearing is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, researching British foreign policy in the Middle East. Follow him on twitter: @davidwearing
"David Wearing". London: The Guardian. 27 October 2009. Retrieved 4 May 2012.