U.S. opinion-shapers and policymakers are once again calling for an alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after it executed U.S. citizen James Foley. ISIS will execute many more people in Syria and Iraq, and quite possibly more U.S. citizens. With each death, the argument for working with Assad will resurface. While it understandably angers and worries the regime's opponents — not least the Syrians whom the regime is killing — it cannot be dismissed out of hand. We should examine its premises and conclusions honestly and critically, while its proponents need to clearly address its moral, strategic and operational implications for the United States.

The argument's starting premise is that the Syrian regime is in important ways preferable to ISIS. This raises the questions: preferable for whom, and why?

In ISIS territory, sects whom Islam does not consider "people of the book" must choose between conversion, fleeing or death (Christians are given the option of paying a special tax). This religious element of ISIS repression distinguishes it from the regime, which in contrast is content to torture and kill whomever it cannot subjugate, not for their religious beliefs, but for their political ones. Anyone unlucky enough to inhabit the same physical space — or to attract the attention of regime troops looking to rape and pillage — is a target. Syrian Sunnis are cursed with the same religious accident of birth and beliefs as non-Sunnis and moderate Sunnis caught in ISIS territory. The difference is they are guilty of political, rather than spiritual, crimes, namely their aspirations for a dignified life and an escape from the 40-year political and intellectual prison Assad has built.


Anyone arguing that it is better to torture and kill people for their political rather than their religious beliefs must explain why secular tyranny — which has killed tens of millions in the 20th century alone — is preferable to the religious kind. Few champions of working with Assad have done so. Nor have they addressed that pre-ISIS Syria was miserable enough to drive Syrians outside the gangster clique to risk everything to overthrow it. To imagine some form of Syria before ISIS that was not a pit of endless misery for millions is ignorant, dishonest or distorted.

Perhaps there is also, to put it crudely, a subjective, "aesthetic" element to preferring Assad over ISIS. Foley is a U.S. citizen whose slaughter was broadcast for Western public consumption — a terrible public relations stunt. The regime has taken the opposite PR approach by imposing a media blackout. Except in footage occasionally leaked by regime soldiers and viewed by Syria researchers and analysts, the regime's victims are not executed on social media by English-speakers. Instead, they die in obscurity: shot in their homes at night; dumped in rivers with their throats cut or vocal chords ripped out; suffocated in their beds by poison; starved to death in besieged cities; buried alive in rubble; torn to bits by barrel bombs in remote urban areas; raped and slaughtered in anonymous villages; or tortured to death in regime prisons — their corpses quietly delivered to their families. Syria-observers are all too familiar with this not-so-secret savagery, but they are a marginal portion of the Western population and, one would hope, do not include those pundits calling for an alliance with Assad.

Hazy moral preferences aside, there is the argument of U.S. self-interest: Assad is preferable to ISIS because he won't directly attack the United States. Admittedly, the Assad regime — especially in its current, hollowed-out form — is too petty and insecure to ever translate empty anti-U.S. rhetoric to action. Perhaps the United States can take some comfort in this — notwithstanding Assad's opportunistic support for militant proxy groups (including ISIS's forerunners) that have killed many Americans. A totalitarian religious group committed to destroying the United States may be more dangerous to Americans than a cynical gangster-militia masquerading as a state.

Yet we must explain why and how it is a surer bet to work with the Syrian regime than the mainstream Syrian rebellion, which has done far more than Assad to weaken ISIS. We have doubts over the opposition's reliability, but is it any more unreliable than a regime with a decades-long history of cheating, manipulating, using and misleading the United States, violating international law, and consistently working with U.S. enemies and against its allies? What of its off-and-on record of direct support for these very jihadist groups? If the United States is concerned about some Syrian opposition weapons falling into the wrong hands, what of providing weapons to the sullied hands of the regime?

Above all, apart from the regime's questionable reliability, advocates of an Assad alliance must explain how this could conceivably defeat Sunni jihadism and the threat it poses to U.S. interests. The United States rightly identified Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — a onetime U.S. ally and partner, no less — as an important driver of radicalism among Sunni Iraqis, who constitute some 20 percent of the population. How then could Assad, whose crimes dwarf Maliki's, and whose regime cannot and will not reconcile with the Sunnis, who form 80 percent of the Syrian population, possibly solve Syria's Sunni jihadist problem? The regime cannot but perpetuate an infinite series of ISISes. Advocates of working with Assad need to explain why Assad deserves a better deal than Maliki, whom the United States insisted resign before helping the Iraqi army.

There are many other questions, including over the legal implications of working with a regime whose ongoing war crimes are already meticulously documented. Additionally, what would working with Assad actually entail, operationally? Would we also help him destroy our allies in the Syrian opposition, who after all divert regime resources away from fighting ISIS? Or would we insist the regime fights ISIS alone, even as the mainstream opposition fights the regime? Would we work with Hezbollah? How would this impact U.S. regional allies and broader interests?

To its credit, the Obama administration does not yet seem inclined to partner with Assad. Yet some influential voices continue to push for it. Regardless of where one stands on the issue, the Syria policy debate has for too long been lazy, glib, ill-informed and — given the enormous stakes and human suffering involved — downright irresponsible. It is past time to have a more honest, introspective and rigorous discussion that places the burden of proof on anyone championing one tyranny over another, at the expense of the tens of millions forced to live with the consequences.

Itani is a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.