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The Murky Story of Whether the U.S. and Assad Are Teaming Up Against ISIS

In a new interview, Assad says there is some communication between Washington and Damascus.

Photo via STR/AFP/Getty Images
Photo via STR/AFP/Getty Images

In the tangled web of the Syrian civil war, it is no secret that the United States’ decision to launch a military campaign against the Islamic State has effectively allied Washington with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. That uncomfortable fact has given rise to a related and politically explosive question: Is Washington in any meaningful way coordinating its military operations with Assad?

According to the White House, no such coordination is taking place, but on Tuesday, the BBC released an interview with Assad in which he claimed that there is some limited communication between the United States and Syria.

Asked by Jeremy Bowen, the network’s Middle East editor, whether the fact that the United States Air Force has been able to operate in Syrian air space without encountering opposition from Syrian government forces is evidence that  “someone is talking to someone here” in Damascus, Assad replied: “That’s correct, that’s correct.”

“But again there’s no direct cooperation,” Assad elaborated. “Through a third party — more than one party — Iraq and other countries. Sometimes they convey message, general message, but there’s nothing tactical.”

A White House spokesman denied cooperation with Assad and told the network that there is no “advance notification to the Syrians at a military level.” But the disagreement here appears to be one of degree, not substance.

The cooperation described by Assad does not amount to tactical coordination on where and when air strikes will take place and who will carry them out. Rather, there appears to be a channel open between Washington and Damascus allowing them to convey messages to one another.

“There’s no dialogue,” Assad told the BBC. “There’s, let’s say, information but not dialogue.”

At the outset of the air campaign against the Islamic State in September, Assad offered tacit approval to the effort, telling an Iraqi official that “Syria supports any international counterterrorism effort.” That prompted speculation that the Iraqi official in question, National Security Advisor Faleh al-Fayyad, was acting as a go-between for Washington and Damascus.

In the BBC interview, he Assad appeared to confirm the existence of the back-channel: “We knew about the campaign before it started, but we didn’t know about the details.”

Two days after Fayyad met with Assad in Damascus, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told a group of reporters that he had sent an adviser to Syria to assure its leader that it would not be a target of the military campaign. Abadi added that the Americans had asked that he pass along a similar message.

And why wouldn’t the United States keep open a channel to Damascus? Washington surely wants to avoid a confrontation between its jets and those belonging to the Syrian air force. Such an encounter, involving the possible downing of a U.S. plane in Syrian territory, could drag the United States into a wider military confrontation in the Middle East, something President Barack Obama has staked his entire presidency on avoiding.

There’s no evidence to indicate that these indirect conversations between Washington and Damascus go beyond the kind of general information described by Assad, but the existence of a channel can’t be denied. In a war this complicated, where a misstep could cause serious repercussions, that may be for the best.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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