Syria's government has begun its own airstrikes on Islamic State. Photographer: Zein Al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images
Syria's government has begun its own airstrikes on Islamic State. Photographer: Zein Al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images

Not for the first time, President Barack Obama has an awkward case to make on his Syria policy. After refusing for years to get involved militarily in Syria, the U.S. appears to be preparing for airstrikes -- not against President Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime, but on one of his enemies.

The Obama administration says it may attack Islamic State in Syria, but will not be working with Assad to do so. Obama still needs a clearer strategy to help end Syria's civil war and to fight Islamic State, which controls parts of both Syria and neighboring Iraq. But in this instance some ambiguity is justified.

Syria’s Civil War

Former U.S. diplomat Richard Haass has proposed that Obama embrace the Assad regime for now as the "lesser evil" in Syria, coordinating with its ground forces to help eliminate Islamic State. This goes too far. Assad is a war criminal and the primary culprit in a conflict that, according to the United Nations, has killed almost 200,000 people so far.

Assad also fostered the growth of Islamic State, leaving it largely untouched so it could destroy his more moderate enemies. Then, he no doubt figured, the U.S. and its allies would be forced to choose between backing him or terrorists. Assad should not be rewarded for such a cynical ploy, and there may be no need: He has in recent weeks begun to order his own airstrikes on Islamic State, which now presents a direct threat to his hold on power.

Assad has warned that U.S. airstrikes within Syria without his permission will be seen as an act of aggression. Still, it seems unlikely he would be foolish enough to shoot down U.S. planes that are attacking a common enemy. If U.S. officials think back-channel contacts with Assad will help keep U.S. pilots safe, they should make them. But they should not accede to any demands for recognition from Assad, whose minority Alawite regime has ruled Syria's Sunni majority for decades.

Open cooperation with Assad would only make it harder to convince Sunnis on the ground to reject Islamic State. In defeating Islamic State, the cooperation of ordinary Sunnis in Iraq and Syria is far more important than that of Assad. A formal alliance with Assad would also make it almost impossible for the Obama administration to build the coalition of the region's feuding Sunni governments -- including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- necessary to fight Islamic State, in Iraq and Syria. Getting their agreement to use some of the Arab world’s roughly 600 combat aircraft to join the airstrikes -- as they should -- will be difficult enough.

The shared interest that the U.S., Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran now have in containing Islamic State presents an opportunity to form a strategy to end Syria's civil war. If their cooperation helps to create a credible opposition force in Syria, built at the expense of Islamic State, Assad may be forced into a cease-fire and negotiation with his mainly Sunni opponents.

But that's a long way off. The priority now is to defeat Islamic State. Doing so also happens to be in Assad's interests, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. supports his regime.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.