President Barack Obama's decision to authorize aerial surveillance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions in Syria suggests that airstrikes employing manned and unmanned aircraft may not be far behind. All of this is right and proper. Yet danger lurks. The head of Syria's preeminent crime family—President Bashar Al Assad—waits, crocodile-like, for the American angler to tumble out of the boat. For Assad, opportunity knocks. If he handles matters correctly he can, with an assist from American inaction, return to polite society while others do the anti-ISIS heavy lifting for him.
From the beginning of Syria's 2011 popular uprising against a corrupt, incompetent, cynical, and brutal regime, Assad has pursued with singleminded discipline a very simple strategy: Sell oneself as the fire brigade to help hose the flames of one’s own arson. Determined to create an alternate opposition that would overwhelm peaceful protest, Assad emptied his jails of violent, Islamist prisoners and employed tactics of violent sectarianism to lure back to Syria the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) terrorists his regime once escorted to Iraq from Damascus. As AQI in Syria morphed into ISIS and the Nusra Front, and as foreign fighters swelled their ranks, Assad's message—amplified by Iran and Russia—has been unchanging: "I am the bulwark against terrorism. Sooner or later the West will have to crawl back into my good graces."
Assad, his minions, and his apologists believe the hour of deliverance is nigh. Walid Al Mouallem, foreign minister of the pseudo-government providing clerical services to the ruling clan, has warned Washington against violating Syria's sovereignty while offering coordination and collaboration against ISIS. The Obama administration has responded appropriately to the offer: with contemptuous rejection. Still, danger lurks in the murky waters of Levantine political intrigue.
For Bashar Al Assad the ideal scenario is one in which ISIS helps him kill off his armed nationalist opposition in western Syria, American aviation assets pound ISIS positions in the east, and he sits comfortably in Damascus, feeling once again needed by the West as a useful partner against those arguably more evil than him. And a lucrative dividend awaits: The fact or perception of collaboration between Washington and Damascus driving wedges between the U.S. and every one of its regional partners, thereby serving the interests of the party Assad has so faithfully served: Iran.
Based on his experience with Washington since mid-2011, Assad has every reason to believe his strategy will bear fruit. Now, as his own forces focus on bombing, shelling, and starving civilians, ISIS fighters in western Syria work obligingly to eliminate his armed opposition. Now, as the U.S. contemplates an aerial campaign against ISIS targets in the east, Assad envisions a continuation of living large at the expense of others: Iran, Russia, ISIS, and now America. He expects harsh rhetoric from Washington. He will tell allies and adversaries alike to pay no attention to the words of those who have told him to step aside, warned him of red lines, threatened him with military strikes, and promised aid to opponents that never quite materialized in the forms or quantities required.
Indeed, if all the administration has to offer is more rhetoric, it is walking into a deadly geopolitical ambush. Even as Washington—ideally joined by partners—goes its own way operationally against ISIS with no reference whatsoever to the Assad regime, Assad will be believed both inside Syria and around the region when he claims that the fix is in. He will allege coordination and collaboration when none exists. He will hint at prominent visitors from Europe and the U.S., irrespective of their actual authorities. If all there is from Washington is talk, he will be believed.
How to avoid the ambush? Demonstrate real hostility toward Assad, whose removal for the sake of neutralizing ISIS is even more justified than the ouster of Iraq's Nouri Al Maliki. If, in the course of U.S. anti-ISIS air operations over Syria, regime air defense radars lock onto U.S. aircraft, the relevant air defense site or sites should be engaged decisively. Robust and timely aid for Syrian nationalist rebels fighting both the regime and ISIS is a must. Relevant security assistance for a Syrian National Coalition trying to set up an alternate governing structure in non-Assad, non-ISIS Syria is mandatory. Building an all-Syrian national stabilization force in Turkey and Jordan for eventual anti-regime and anti-ISIS peace-enforcement is essential. American leadership in creating mechanisms that can one day bring Bashar Al Assad and his principal enforcers to trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity is vital. These are the steps that can put the lie to Assad's libel.
Words alone will not be enough. Assad and his confederates have dined out on administration rhetoric. To treat the problem of ISIS in Syria and the looming perception of American collaboration with Assad as a routine exercise in strategic communications is to waltz, open-mouthed, into an ambush with deadly consequences. It is an ambush well-worth avoiding.
Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He worked on Syria-related issues in the State Department from 2009 through 2012.