As the West and the Middle Eastern governments come under increasing pressure to deal with the growing butchery of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), cooperation with one of the region’’s most ruthless regimes may offer the most effective solution.

Syria’s caretaker deputy prime minister, Walid al-Moallem, said on 25 August that Damascus was prepared to “cooperate on regional and international levels to combat the threat of terrorism from Isis”.

While the thought of Western and Gulf leaders working with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in any capacity one year ago would have been inconceivable, Isis’ growing stranglehold in Syria and northern areas in Iraq now poses the biggest threat to regional and international security since the formation of Al-Qaeda.

International coalition

As MEED went to press, the Nato summit in Wales was being used as a forum for Washington to gain support for an international coalition to combat Isis, with US Secretary of State John Kerry set to travel to the Middle East immediately after to enlist regional partners.

“With a united response led by the US and the broadest possible coalition of nations, the cancer of Isis will not be allowed to spread to other countries,” wrote Kerry, in an editorial piece for the New York Times on 30 August.

With Isis headquartered in Syria, collaboration with Damascus may have to form a key part of any multilateral action. Whether cooperation with Al-Assad is possible and the extent to which it is required will be key questions in the minds of regional and Western decision-makers as they seek to deal with the advance of Isis.

Since the uprising against his regime began in March 2011, Al-Assad has led a brutal crackdown on opposition groups. More than 190,000 people are estimated to have been killed as a result of the civil war, and millions of Syrians have been forced to flee to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan to escape the conflict.

Western and regional leaders have repeatedly called for Al-Assad to stand down to end the violence and have overtly been funding and arming rebels. International revulsion at Al-Assad’s tactics to supress the opposition peaked in August 2013, when evidence emerged that his regime was using chemical weapons against the Syrian people.

Window of opportunity

US military action was averted when Russia stepped in to negotiate a deal with Damascus, where it promised to destroy its chemical arsenal in return for avoiding an aerial assault from Washington and its allies. However, while many in the international community felt the West had abandoned the Syrian people, the avoidance of airstrikes has now left an opening for cooperation with Damascus to defeat Isis.

“Now there is the view that [Bashar al-Assad] could be a partner in the war on terror”

Jane Kinninmont, Chatham House

“This marked a turning point for Al-Assad; we saw the supposed peace process, which began in Geneva and didn’t go anywhere, but it did entail international recognition of Al-Assad being a negotiating partner. And now there is the view that he could be a partner in the war on terror,” says Jane Kinninmont, associate fellow, Middle East and North Africa programme at UK think-tank Chatham House.

While Isis’ advances in Iraq have been well documented, it is widely recognised that unless the movement’s roots in Syria are destroyed, the threat will remain. “If there is simply a crackdown on Isis in Iraq, then it will try to regroup and advance in Syria, so there needs to be a joined-up strategy. And this is why we are seeing the argument that Al-Assad is the lesser of two evils in this,” says Kinninmont.

Iran model

While the US is in talks with the Iraqi and Kurdish governments and militaries to formulate a plan to push back against Isis, as yet no efforts have been made to coordinate with Damascus.

In his call for an international coalition, Kerry spoke of the need for support from “the moderate Syrian opposition”, with no mention of the country’s leader. Ahead of the Nato summit, the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron dismissed the idea of working with Al-Assad, saying the president was part of the problem not the solution.

However, analysts say that for any action against Isis to succeed, cooperation and assistance from the Syrian military are necessary. A similar approach to the one taken with the previously-ostracised Iranian leadership is required, according to Theodore Karasik, director of research and consultancy at the Dubai-headquartered Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma).

“I think the US and the Iranians are talking at very high levels and cooperating in Iraq right now, and the same type of model needs to be established for Syria,” says Karasik.

It is easy to understand why Damascus is keen to be part of an international coalition force. While some have argued that Al-Assad was content to let Isis flourish during the early stages of the uprising, as a counter-balance for the Al-Qaeda offshoot Al-Nusra Front, the various rebel factions continue to exert a significant stress on his economic and military resources.

“It is very important for the Syrians to get some type of support from the West and Middle East states,” says Karasik. “Because Isis represents such a threat to so many countries, the Syrians see this as an opportunity for an improvement of relations and a lightening of sanctions.”

Regional solution

An effective collaboration against Isis would require two elements: a US-led Western bloc and support from regional states, which are unlikely to be able to agree on a plan of action without Washington’s diplomatic support.

“A regional solution would be ideal, or next to ideal,” says Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. “However, I think the time for this was two years ago, following the Geneva 1 statement in 2012, when [the then Egyptian president] Mohamed Mursi attempted to set up the quartet of states – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Turkey – to bring up a regional solution. The problem was that the Saudis in particular were very hostile and negative, and Egypt didn’t have enough clout. Egypt has less clout today, I think.”

The region’s political and economic powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran will play a key part in any unified action in Iraq. Both have been heavily involved at opposing ends of the spectrum in the Syrian crisis, with Tehran remaining one of Al-Assad’s few allies and Riyadh providing arms for the opposition. While Saudi Arabia, its GCC neighbours and Iran have endured a fractious relationship in recent history, the threat of Isis may result in Riyadh assuaging its suspicions of Tehran.

“I think the GCC states are nervous about US cooperation with Iran, and potentially Al-Assad, but they see it as imperative as Isis is a direct threat to them – because Isis’ plans for the next six years is to take the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula,” says Karasik.

There is already evidence of a move to improve relations between Riyadh and Tehran, with Iran’s deputy foreign minister visiting the Saudi capital on 26 August for the first bilateral talks since 2013. Governing factions on both sides welcomed the nomination of Shia politician Haider al-Abadi as prime minister of Iraq, with Riyadh having regarded the previous prime minister Nouri al-Maliki as being too close to Iran.

But while support from Damascus may be crucial to containing Isis, many remain sceptical of its willingness to cooperate openly and effectively. “The US cooperated with the Syrians during the Iraq war on the intelligence-sharing level,” says Karasik. “Some say the information was good, others say it was not. The Syrians are very crafty at playing the game; they decide which intelligence to hold back on. ”

Finding an intermediary

While the effectiveness of a coalition assault on Isis may depend on the extent of Damascus’ willingness to collaborate fully, the main stumbling block to gaining Al-Assad’s military support may be the lack of an intermediary.

Russia has played the go-between for the West and Syria in recent history, including its role in negotiating the destruction of Damascus’ chemical weapons stockpile in 2013. However, the ongoing Ukraine crisis has left US-Russia relations at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. “To replace the Russians for negotiations is going to be difficult. This is the missing piece,” says Karasik.

While some have pointed to Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi or the new Iraqi government as a possible bridge between Damascus and the international community, Tehran may offer the best opportunity to broker a deal.

“Iran could possibly take the position of Russia as a potential intermediary,” says Kinninmont. “The Syrian regime doesn’t have many international allies, but does need Iranian military support.”

This is not the first time an international coalition has been required to eliminate a major threat to regional and global security emanating from Iraq. However, while in 1990 Baghdad was the aggressor, today it is the victim. To fully extinguish the threat of the jihadist movement, the West may be required to cooperate with one enemy to defeat a greater enemy. Without cooperation with Al-Assad, any military victory over Isis is only likely to be temporary.