Is Syria Becoming A Partner In The Fight Against Islamist Terror?

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Kelly McEvers talks to Emile Hokayem, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, about some western nations shifting to the idea of working with Syria's regime to fight Islamist militants.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

All this week, we've been taking a look at the growing strength of the militant group known as the Islamic State.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

News this week of the killing of an American journalist by the Islamic State has many worried that the group poses a major threat to the West.

MCEVERS: So yesterday on this program, we asked Ben Rhodes, White House Deputy National Security Advisor, whether the U.S. would now consider working with the Syrian regime of the Bashar Al-Assad to fight the Islamic State or ISIL, as he called them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BEN RHODES: No, Kelly. We basically think that the reason that ISIL was able to get the safe haven that they established in parts of Syria is because of Assad's policies. So he's part of the problem.

GREENE: Rhodes is talking about Assad's brutality against his own people in Syria's Civil War. But there are reports that some European Intelligence Agencies have already been in contact with the Syrian government about how to contain the Islamic State.

MCEVERS: So will Syria become a partner in the fight against Islamist militants? That's the question we put to Emile Hokayem. He's a senior fellow with a London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. We reached him in Beirut. Welcome.

EMILE HOKAYEM: Thank you.

MCEVERS: What do we know about these contacts by European Intelligence Services with the Assad regime? Which Intelligence Services are in touch with him?

HOKAYEM: There were low-level contacts late last year by some European Intelligence Agencies.

MCEVERS: So I want to just understand what exactly these Intelligence Services thought they could gain by being in touch with the Assad regime.

HOKAYEM: When these contacts were first initiated, the ISIS problem was not as big. So the interest was, primarily, to get information about Western jihadists and, second, about Western hostages. And Assad's extensive intelligence network was seen as a potential source of information about both. This meant, however, that in exchange of offering this kind of information, Assad expected something in return - less pressure on his regime, less support for the Syrian rebels. This is a trade-off that was not palpable at the time. However, today, conditions have changed. The growth of ISIS, both in terms of number and reach, is posing a major regional but also global threat. And Assad may be in the position to get more for even low-level limited cooperation.

MCEVERS: Right. So I mean, it's in his interest to say, you know, come to me. I've got information for you.

HOKAYEM: This is certainly what he's counting on. He's also hoping that people will forget that he has contributed to creating the conditions that have led to the rise of extremism inside Syria. No, Assad did not create ISIS. This organization existed even before the Syrian uprising. But he has manipulated and benefited from extremist groups.

MCEVERS: Right. The Deputy White House Advisor also told us yesterday that they're not ruling out military action in Syria. Can you imagine a scenario where the United States has to talk to the Assad regime to say we're going to launch airstrikes in your country now against ISIS, please don't shoot our planes down with your air defense system?

HOKAYEM: Well, most of Syria's air defense systems are located in the west of the country, not really in the east of the country and the north of the country where ISIS is the most present.

MCEVERS: Do you imagine a scenario, at some point, where the United States has no choice but to deal with Assad?

HOKAYEM: I don't think this is likely in the short or medium-term. But quid pro quos are certainly very possible. For instance, you know, the U.S. limiting the already limited level of support it provides to the Syrian rebels. Or using air power in specific regions but not infringing on regions where Assad dominates.

MCEVERS: So a scenario where you say give us information, for instance, about a hostage, and we will only, you know, strike ISIS in these areas which are far away from your centers of power.

HOKAYEM: Yes. But I still think this is a remote possibility. What's happening more immediately and which is extremely concerning is this emergence of a discourse among Washington pundits to the point that it makes sense to cooperate with Assad. I thing it's very unfortunate that this is all happening on the first anniversary of the large-scale chemical attacks that Assad waged on civilians in Damascus. That was the largest kill - massacres of civilians in the war. As bad ISIS is, what Assad has already done is pretty terrifying.

MCEVERS: That's Emile Hokayema. He's a senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Emile, thank you so much.

HOKAYEM: Thank you so much for your time.

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