Immediately after the United States began its bombing campaign in President Bashar al-Assad’s backyard, the Syrian leader received a conspicuous visitor: Iraqi National Security Advisor Faleh al-Fayyad. The two men discussed the ongoing fight against Islamic State militants and, according to the Syrian state media summary of the meeting, Assad told the Iraqi official "that Syria supports any international counterterrorism effort." It was at least their second meeting in as many weeks.
While the report contained no specific mention of U.S. bombing in Syria, Assad’s comment walks that fine line where it can be easily interpreted as a signal to Washington that Damascus will not stand the way of — and indeed welcomes — U.S. efforts to strike the Islamic State, which Assad sees as a mortal enemy.
The Syrian civil war and the subsequent rise of radical jihadist groups in the country have made strange bedfellows of the United States and its erstwhile enemies. Inside Iraq, U.S. airstrikes have at times come in support of Iranian-backed Shiite militias, putting Washington in the odd position of serving as Tehran’s air force in Iraq. As for Syria, President Barack Obama has called for Assad’s ouster but has now found common cause with the brutal strongman in launching an air war against the Islamic State militants fighting to overthrow him.
While U.S. officials maintain that they are not cooperating with Iranian forces in Iraq, privately they concede that they are coordinating airstrikes with Iranian militias by using Iraqi security forces as intermediaries. With the U.S. air war now expanding to Syria, Fayyad’s repeated trips to Damascus raise the possibility that Iraqi officials are reprising that coordination during another alliance of convenience between the United States and an ostensible enemy.
The ongoing fighting in Iraq offers a sign of how that could work in practice. When Iranian-backed Shiite militias broke the siege at Amerli, American airpower played a key role. But the use of airpower in such close quarters requires the military to coordinate strikes with the forces on the ground in support of whom it acts. Because of tense U.S. ties with Iran, overt military cooperation between the two remains a political impossibility in both capitals. As a result, the Iranian militias passed their plans to Iraqi commanders supervising the fight. They, in turn, relayed the plans to the Americans overseeing the air campaign.
The United States is loath to admit such cooperation with Iran, not only because it signals the inability of Iraqi forces to fight on their own, but also because it helps legitimize Iran’s military presence inside Iraq’s borders.
Now, the United States finds itself in a similar position in Syria. Having called for Assad’s ouster, cooperation with the Syrian leader only helps strengthen a leader the United States would like to see exit the world stage. And with moderate Syrian rebels showing little ability to make battlefield advances against the Islamic State, the Assad regime represents Washington’s most robust military partner inside Syria.
On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki issued a statement adamantly maintaining that the United States was not actively working with the Assad government in its military campaign in Syria. The United States, Psaki said, "did not request the regime’s permission," "did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government," and "did not provide advance notification to the Syrians at a military level."
But even if U.S. officials aren’t coordinating their efforts with Assad, that doesn’t mean Fayyad isn’t serving as a channel between the two.
Indeed, it would be surprising if U.S. intelligence wasn’t using the Fayyad channel to convey messages to the Syrian strongman. If Syrian forces were to fire upon American forces or if an American warplane were to be downed inside Syrian territory, that would risk widening the conflict and sparking open conflict between Syria and the United States. That’s a possibility Obama would clearly like to avoid, and a back channel through Fayyad could help him in heading off such an outcome.
There is little reason to believe that Obama would condition a military campaign inside Syria on Assad’s consent, but cooperation from Damascus would drastically reduce the risks of the American campaign.
When Fayyad met with the Syrian leader a week ago, SANA, Syria’s state news agency, reported that the Iraqi briefed "Assad on the latest developments in Iraq and the efforts exerted by the Iraqi government and people to confront terrorists." According to that report, the two men stressed "the need to bolster cooperation and coordination between the two countries in the field of combating the terrorism which is affecting Syria and Iraq and which poses a threat to the region and the world."
Events on the ground in Iraq have only heightened the need for buy-in from Damascus in fighting the Islamic State. As of Monday, U.S. forces have now carried out 190 strikes in Iraq, but the extensive air campaign has so far failed to dislodge the Islamic State from large parts of western and northern Iraq. The group remains in control of Fallujah and Mosul and recently routed the Iraqi army from a base in Anbar province. The attack is thought to have left somewhere between 300 and 500 Iraqi soldiers dead.
Meanwhile in Syria, Kurdish forces have fared no better. A recent Islamic State advance toward the Kurdish border captured a string of villages and sent more than 100,000 refugees streaming across the Turkish border.
Late Monday, U.S. forces unleashed a barrage of missiles and bombs on Islamic State assets in Syria, including command and control facilities, training compounds, headquarters, storage facilities, a finance center, and supply trucks and armed vehicles. But those munitions did little to answer the question of who will fight Islamic State militants on the ground in Syria.
Perhaps that’s a question Fayyad was trying to answer in Damascus during the last two weeks.