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The major development in Iraq this week is the Syrian military launching airstrikes within Iraq. The strikes were apparently not coordinated with the Iraqi government, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki welcomed them anyway.
The merging of the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields puts the U.S. in an awkward position, given that it is still nominally supporting the overthrow of Bashar Assad’s government. Just three weeks ago, National Security Adviser Susan Rice suggested the U.S. would be upping its support to the anti-Assad rebels.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged that the airstrikes in Iraq had taken place but was adamant that “the solution to the threat confronting Iraq is not the intervention of the Assad regime,” blaming the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) recent rise to power on Assad’s violence against his own people.
For now, open cooperation between Syria and the U.S. appears unlikely. In fact, the rumbles from Congress suggest that the crisis may lead the U.S. to increase its support of the non-ISIL rebels.
All the same, it seems possible at this point that the crisis in Iraq could provide Assad’s government with a path back from international pariah to a bit of respectability. The once unthinkable “case for Assad” is now becoming a mainstream position in the United States.
Mousab Alhamadee and Jonathan Landay of McClatchy write: “Assad could point to the airstrikes to press his argument that he’s indispensable in the fight against radical Islam and demand that the United States and its European allies reconsider their demand for his departure from power as part of a settlement to Syria’s civil war.”
For the most part, Assad tolerated the rise of ISIL in recent months in a bid to divide and stigmatize the rebels. He has now begun bombing them at the exact moment that the U.S. and Europe have become increasingly alarmed about the group’s rise.
A bit less than a year ago, it seemed extremely likely that the U.S. would drop bombs on Assad’s military. The U.S. is now seriously considering dropping bombs on Assad’s enemies.
And he’s done it while continuing the wanton slaughter of Syrian civilians and possibly continuing to use chemical weapons.
The Syrian leader’s actions may have plunged an entire region into irreparable chaos, but in terms of pure self-preservation, he looks pretty shrewd right now.