Provoking quandary for US, embattled Syrian government asks for help fighting Islamic State

McClatchy Foreign StaffAugust 25, 2014 

Mideast Syria

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem speaks during a press conference, giving the first public comments by a senior Assad official on the threat posed by the Islamic State group, in Damascus, Syria on Monday, August 25, 2014. (AP Photo/SANA)

UNCREDITED — AP

— One day after losing a major airbase to Islamic extremists, Syria said Monday it was willing to work with other countries to fight terror groups in Syria provided they show respect for the Syrian regime and operate only with its permission.

At least one third of Syrian territory is said to be in the hands of the radical Islamic State, and the loss of Tabqa airbase Sunday put the entire east Syrian province of Raqqa in the militant’s hands, a severe setback for the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Walid Al Moallem, the Syrian Deputy Prime Minister, told reporters that Syria is willing to cooperate with other countries “as long as this cooperation is approached in a serious manner, without double standards” and does not “weaken Syria.”

Referring to a recent U.N. Security Council resolution, he said: “Cooperation should be carried out through the Syrian government, which is a symbol of national sovereignty,” the official SANA news agency quoted him as saying. But he said the resolution “does not authorize anyone to act alone against any country.”

“Being serious in combating terrorism isn’t achieved by transgressing against others’ sovereignty. It is a achieved through serious political work to dry up its sources and cooperating with the Syrian government, because we know better than anyone else what is happening on our land.”

Moallem’s hedged welcome for international assistance seemed to be directed at the Obama administration, which has bombed Islamic State forces in Iraq and has refused to rule out unilateral operations in Syria.

The administration has said it will not work with the Assad regime. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said last week Assad was part of the problem. He referred to the Islamic State by its previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It also was formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (ISIS)

"We basically think that the reason that ISIL was able to get the safe haven that they established in parts of Syria is because of Assad's policies,” he told National Public Radio. “His barbarism against his own people created an enormous vacuum. That type of environment of violent conflict and sectarian conflict also attracts people who are drawn into ISIL. So he's part of the problem.”

Several retired diplomats in the U.S. and Britain have urged the West to overcome its reluctance to work with the Assad regime in order to defeat the Islamic State, which also controls more than half of Iraq.

“It makes no sense for the West to support a war against Assad as well as a war against the Islamic State,” former U.S. ambassadors Ryan Crocker, Thomas Pickering and William Luers wrote in a recent op-ed article. “Assad is evil, but in this case, he is certainly the lesser evil.”

And Malcolm Rifkind, the former British Foreign Secretary, said Friday that he does not support the Assad regime in principle, but “sometimes you have to develop relationships with people who are extremely nasty in order to get rid of people who are even nastier.”

But former U.S. diplomat Frederic C. Hof dismissed the Assad regime’s stated willingness to attack the Islamic State, including its air strikes against Islamic State targets in eastern Syria, as hypocritical.

“By reportedly conducting airstrikes on ISIS positions in eastern Syria, the Assad regime is begging for readmission to polite society by attacking the very forces whose existence it has facilitated over the years,” he said in an essay Monday for the Atlantic Council think tank, where he is currently a senior fellow.

“Yet it (Syria) is doing so in a selective way that preserves its de facto collaboration with ISIS in western Syria against the nationalist Syrian opposition…It bombs ISIS targets (as well as civilian water treatment facilities) in the east, perhaps at the behest of Iran, certainly in pursuit of Western appreciation. It shells and bombs Syrian civilians in the west, hoping that its terror tactics combined with ISIS ground assaults can eliminate what is left of the nationalist rebels.”

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