Coursing its way along the Euphrates, from northern Syria to western Iraq, al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is growing in reach and power, now controlling more territory than it’s ever held before.
The stakes are high: Where ISIS has control of territory, it also has a launch pad for global terror. Their dream, the world’s disaster.
Still, amid the crisis, a number of journalists and commentators claim that there’s an opportunity here. As Iran is also threatened by ISIS (a hostility rooted as much in bloody history as present hatred), they argue that the U.S. should consider a temporary alliance with one enemy in order to fight another. Seemingly reflecting this sentiment, Secretary of State Kerry wants Iran to attend next week’s “Geneva II” peace conference as a “sideline” delegate to discuss the future of Syria. The logic seems tempting: One might easily assume that a temporary alliance would serve both our short-term security goals and longer-term interests — perhaps fostering trust for successful nuclear diplomacy, for example.
Even a temporary alliance with Iran would be a grave mistake. To see why, we first need to face up to the true complexity of the Syrian civil war.
Despite the casual consensus otherwise, the anti-Assad rebellion is not wholly dominated by transnational jihadists. Only last week, an alliance of Salafi-nationalist rebels began a campaign to challenge ISIS and its affiliate allies. Their rejection of unrestrained extremism is heartening — it speaks to the popular fury that ISIS’s havoc has induced. At the same time, the Free Syrian Army is showing tentative signs of revival.
However, were the United States to ally with Iran, we’d be opening the door to their hardliners’ broader scheming. If we loosen up on Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Iranian-intelligence officers, those individuals would almost certainly use that space to harass the more moderate rebel columns. In essence, Iran would use the U.S. as a force multiplier — enabling their greater support of Assad’s regime.
This speaks to the disconnect between the U.S. and Iran’s problems with ISIS. Where the U.S. assesses Syrian rebel groups with specific attention to their particular ideologies, agendas, and operational characters, the Iranians regard the rebels as a unitary adversary. Iran isn’t focused on ISIS alone; it seeks to eliminate the rebel movement in its entirety. They won’t stop until they achieve that objective, or until they’re prevented from doing so.
Moreover, how would the other side of the alliance work? Any intelligence material that Iran shared with the U.S. would obviously require major scrutiny. Iran’s actions in Afghanistan prove its comfort in playing two sides of the same coin. Indeed, it’s a basic tenet of the intelligence world that without corroborating information, reliance on a single, foreign source can have disastrous consequences.
Besides, we’d be cooperating with an enemy that still actively seeks to harm us: Just three years ago, the Revolutionary Guards tried to blow up a Washington restaurant. It was just one plot in a long legacy of terrorism. Not exactly an inspiring record for a potential partner.
But even then, whether in terms of intelligence-sharing or some form non-aggression pact, assume we did pursue a short-term alliance with Iran Assume that it helped us to subdue ISIS. Do we seriously expect that our relationship would end on that positive note? Even now, Iran continues to reject any discussion of a Syria without Assad. Iran knows that, as things stand, the war is going in their favor. Their alliance has prevented Assad’s demise and helped him regain the psychological advantage. Any alliance would therefore propagate the (already deeply problematic) notion of American malleability. Once ISIS was subdued, Iran would turn its attention to supporting Assad’s cause in other brutal ways. While ISIS’s gleeful brutality ensures mass-media attention, agents of Iran are themselves committing industrial murder in Syria. Were we to ally with the Iranians, we’d be complicit in their atrocities.
Let’s be clear, the resurgence of ISIS and its role in Syria didn’t suddenly make the country simple. Syria isn’t a zero-sum game delineated by the country’s borders. The political underpinnings of the war remain immensely complex. While the West would probably accept a cease-fire involving some form of power-sharing between Assad and the opposition, for the Iranian hardliners, Assad is one of a kind. They want their Arab ally secure on his throne. Unlike Hezbollah, Assad doesn’t carry the theological banner of Khomeini’s revolution, but his utility to Iran makes him irreplaceable. If the U.S. allows Khamenei to preserve his interests in Syria, he’ll use Syria as a breaching point for regional expansion. We know where that would lead: bloody blackmail in Beirut and Baghdad, more Iranian confidence in resisting further nuclear concessions, and a further collapse of American standing with our allies.
This isn’t to say that we can’t cooperate with Iran on a case-by-case basis. We’ve been right to share intelligence that might prevent attacks against innocent civilians, and we should demand the same in kind. And, of course, we cannot ignore ISIS’s very real threat, one we must confront.
But we must be cautious. Iran’s theocracy is not our friend, and nothing in Syria has changed this fact. Pretending otherwise would be a grave mistake.