The US and UK must work with Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime if they are to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the chairman of Britain’s intelligence and security committee warns.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, one of the UK’s most senior MPs, told the Financial Times (FT) in an exclusive interview that the horrific murder of American journalist, James Foley, highlights the urgent need to take action against the extremist group Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), whose swift rise to power in the Middle East has remained largely unchecked by Western intervention.
While the militants have annexed vast swathes of territory in northern Iraq, their central power base remains in Syria.
“ISIS need to be eliminated and we should not be squeamish about how we do it,” Rifkind told the FT on Friday.
Although he made it clear he does not support the Assad regime in principle, Rifkind reluctantly emphasized that “sometimes you have to develop relationships with people who are extremely nasty in order to get rid of people who are even nastier.”
Following a brutal civil war that has devastated and divided Syria while providing a breeding ground for the Islamic State, the Assad regime has faced isolation from myriad world powers.
Prior to Rifkind’s interview, Western states expressed no willingness to work with Damascus. On Wednesday, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said Assad was “part of the problem.”
Following the Ghouta chemical attack, which killed up to 1,729 people in August 2013, Rifkind was one of most vocal members of Britain’s parliament calling for the UK to intervene against the regime. But as the Islamic State continues to wage aggression in the Middle East, the chairman has urged the US and Britain pursue a strategic shift.
“We have to deal with facts on the ground, not as we would want them to be but as they are,” he said, conceding the prospect of working with Assad would be a deeply unsavory choice.
In an effort to justify his tactical proposal, Rifkind referenced the manner in which allied states worked alongside Joseph Stalin during the Second World War in pursuit of a greater good.
It’s unthinkable that a military operation in Iraq, spearheaded by America and its allies, can exist without some sort of “Syrian dimension,” Rifkind said. “For Syria to become an ISIS safe haven – that is ludicrous,” he continued.
Working in tandem with Syria, throughout the duration of this military operation, has almost become inevitable, the chairman concluded.
The Assad government has recently increased its efforts to defeat the Islamic State, following months of relative passivity. But many Western political analysts and critics have viewed this recent resurgence in military activity as a tactical ploy to regain leverage over the region.
As the Islamic State continues to gather momentum in the Middle East, an increasing number of intelligence and military analysts reportedly endorse Rifkind’s perspective.
Commenting on ISIL’s ongoing aggression in Northern Iraq the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) recently said the situation remains “deeply worrying.” “We condemn the barbaric attacks waged by ISIL terrorists across the region. Hundreds of thousands of people are displaced across the region and in need of aid supplies,” it added.
The FCO emphasize the UK government response is focused on “alleviating the humanitarian suffering of those Iraqis targeted by ISIL terrorists”, “promoting an inclusive, sovereign and democratic Iraq that can push back on ISIL advances and restore stability and security across the country”, and “working with the international community to tackle the broader threat that ISIL poses to the region and other countries around the world”.
With pressure mounting for decisive action against the IS militants who brutally beheaded James Foley this week, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stipulated the only way to address the threat they pose is by working closely with the Iraqi government. Tentative talks with Assad would not be helpful, he added.
"We may very well find that we are aligned against a common enemy. But that does not make us able to trust them, it does not make us able to work with them and it would poison what we are trying to achieve in separating moderate Sunni opinion from the poisonous ideology of Isil [Islamic State] if we were to align ourselves with President Assad", Hammond told the BBC on Friday.
— Foreign Office (FCO) (@foreignoffice) August 22, 2014
Rifkind’s proposal for a US-UK tactical shift with respect to Assad follows Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent announcement that Britain must form a strategic alliance with Iran.
Emphasizing it was in Britain’s national interest to cast aside long-held antagonism with the Islamic Republic, Cameron urged Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to assist the international community in defeating the Islamic State.
The prime minister justified this move on the grounds of the grave need to thwart the “shared threat” of fundamentalist Sunni militants in Syria and Iraq who are endeavoring to cultivate “a terrorist state,” the boundaries of which could infiltrate “the shores of the Mediterranean.”