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Assad: Airstrikes Aren’t Helping Me; Hollande, You’re as Popular as ISIS.

In a new interview, Bashar al-Assad openly floats the idea of a military alliance with the United States against ISIS.

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The French newsmagazine Paris Match scored an exclusive interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and in a short excerpt published Wednesday, the strongman makes his case for why the United States should step up its bombing campaign — in support of Syrian troops. He also takes a shot at his French counterpart, François Hollande, describing him as no more popular than the Islamic State. (The French president is enjoying record-low approval ratings.)

Asked whether coalition airstrikes are helping him, Assad said that the bombardments — the Obama administration’s preferred military tactic in the fight against the Islamic State — aren’t enough. “Troops on the ground that know the land and can react are essential,” Assad told journalist Régis Le Sommier. “That is why there haven’t been any tangible results in the two months of strikes led by the coalition. It isn’t true that the strikes are helpful. They would of course have helped had they been serious and efficient.”

For President Barack Obama and the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State, that statement contains both good and bad news. On the one hand, it provides the White House with some ammunition to rebut critics who claim that its strikes against the Islamic State have ended up benefiting the Assad regime by weakening an enemy bent on his destruction. On the other hand, Assad’s insistence that those same airstrikes would have helped had they been “serious and efficient” looks to be an obvious invitation for the U.S. military to work more directly with Assad against the militants.

That’s exactly the kind of devil’s bargain Obama’s critics have accused him of making, and having Assad extend the invitation in print probably won’t do the White House any good. Still, Assad’s core point isn’t one that many at the Pentagon would take issue with. Senior officers across the U.S. military believe that the airstrikes have at most slowed the group’s advances in Syria and Iraq and that actually reclaiming lost territory will require large numbers of ground troops, including small numbers of American Special Forces who can deploy alongside Iraqi and Kurdish units to help plan and carry out individual assaults against militant strongholds. The White House has to date flatly ruled out sending in any U.S. combat forces, effectively ceding the fight to the battered Iraqi military, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and Assad’s own soldiers.

Just as the White House probably isn’t jumping with excitement at the interview’s publication, neither is the Élysée in Paris. In Wednesday’s excerpt, Assad offers an amazing dig at Hollande, whose approval ratings have dipped to record lows amid a lagging economy. Asked whether relations with Hollande can ever be repaired, Assad offered a chilly response. “It is not a question of personal relations. As a matter of fact, I don’t even know him,” he said. “I am neither a personal enemy or rival of Hollande. I think that Daech is his rival; their popularity is very much the same.” (Daech is an alternative name for the Islamic State militant group.)

Lastly, Wednesday’s excerpts provide definitive evidence that megalomania is alive and well in Damascus. “The captain doesn’t think about death, or life, he thinks about saving his ship. If he thinks about sinking, everyone will die. I am doing my best to save the country,” Assad told Paris Match. “Regardless what happens, we as Syrians will never allow our country to become a toy in Western hands. It is a fundamental principle for us.”

Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

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

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