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Obama's new ISIS strategy is good news for Assad, and he knows it

President Obama
President Obama
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

President Obama made clearer than ever, in an interview with Meet the Press on Sunday, that the United States will become more involved in Syria in response to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL), but that this response will not target Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his regime — and may in fact help him.

"We've got to have a more sustainable strategy, which means the boots on the ground [in Iraq] have to be Iraqi," Obama said of his plan to defeat ISIS in Iraq by encouraging the Iraqi government and military to fight them. "And in Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian."

Obama explained that he envisions moderate Sunni rebel groups challenging ISIS directly for control of Syrian territory, with support from the United States. But that also means somehow steering the Assad regime to shift its military focus from targeting those moderate rebels, as it currently is, to targeting ISIS instead. It's not clear how this would be possible unless the US, in its sponsorship of Syrian rebels, encouraged them to ease back on Assad and fight ISIS instead.

"In terms of controlling territory, we're going to have to develop a moderate Sunni opposition that can control territory and that we can work with," Obama said. "We need to put more resources into the moderate opposition in part because, unless we have people we can work with who are Sunni in these Sunni regions, then we're going to continue to have these problems."

Syria's civil war is a three-way conflict between the Syrian government, ISIS, and more moderate rebels. (Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, might be considered a fourth party to the war.) The moderate rebels are the weakest party, in part because both Assad and ISIS appear to have a tacit deal to target those rebels first before fully fighting one another. Obama acknowledged this: "They have been on the defensive, not just from ISIL, but also from the Assad regime."

bashar assad Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Bashar al-Assad (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

"Right now in Syria, you've got a choice, in the minds of a lotta people, between radical Sunni extremists or Assad," Obama said, acknowledging that the moderate rebels' weakness makes them a not viable choice for Syrians. The ugly truth is that, while Syrian Sunnis are not exactly rushing into ISIS's embrace, nor are they rising up against it. There is no anti-ISIS rebellion, in the same way that there is an anti-Assad. Obama's implication was that he wants to offer Syrians a third choice: moderate Syrian rebels.

At this point, though, all of the US-supplied kalashnikovs and mortar rounds in the world are probably not going to be enough to help Syria's moderate rebels take on both the Assad regime and ISIS at the same time, much less seize all that ISIS-held territory in eastern Syria. The possibility of US airstrikes against ISIS territory in Syria would make a difference, but far from a decisive one.

The calculus of the war has to change, and that appears to mean that the United States will now form its own unspoken and unacknowledged agreement with the Assad regime: let's put aside our differences, for now, and cooperate against ISIS, a mutual enemy we both hate more than each other. In its basic contours, it is almost identical to the tacit deal that the Assad regime made with ISIS against the moderate rebels.

Obama all but acknowledged this in his interview. "Our attitude towards Assad continues to be that you know, through his actions, through using chemical weapons on his own people, dropping barrel bombs that killed innocent children that he has foregone legitimacy," Obama said. "But when it comes to our policy and the coalition that we're putting together, our focus specifically is on ISIL. It's narrowly on ISIL."

Obama has been clear that the US cannot be seen as supporting Assad, even tacitly, and that Assad is a huge part of the problem that allowed ISIS to form in the first place. But he also made clear on Sunday that America's priorities in the region are changing to focus on ISIS rather than Assad, and even encouraging Assad to see his goals as in line with America's.