NEW YORK -- Foreign Affairs magazine may have just given Syrian dictator Bashar Assad his biggest opportunity to promote himself in recent months, but the outlet's managing editor wants to make clear that he didn't buy Assad's rhetoric.
Jonathan Tepperman, who interviewed Assad in Damascus on Jan. 20, wrote a Washington Post op-ed on Friday that warned against any cooperation with the Syrian regime. The op-ed challenged what appears to be a growing consensus in Washington circles -- including, as revealed by The Huffington Post, at the highest levels of the Obama administration -- that Assad should be left in power because he could be useful in the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State militants.
Assad reached out to proponents of the latter argument in his conversation with Foreign Affairs, published Jan. 26. He called for the U.S. to work with his army and painted his opponents, including the moderate nationalist groups that first attempted to overthrow him, as various al-Qaeda offshoots with shady ties to Arab governments that have tacitly supported extremism.
Tepperman's op-ed repeatedly suggested that Assad is deceptive and even "delusional" in his assessment of the situation.
"Superficially, Assad said many of the right things, appearing conciliatory and eager to involve Western governments in his struggle against Islamist terrorism. But underneath the pretty words, he remains as unrepentant and inflexible today as he was at the start of the Syrian civil war four years ago," Tepperman wrote.
"Whatever Western leaders might wish, the fighting in Syria will end in one of only two ways," he added. "Either Assad will defeat the rebels. Or the rebels will defeat him -- and string him up by his toes."
The Foreign Affairs editor was referring to the moderate Syrian rebels whom the U.S. has been supporting -- with varying degrees of success -- for more than a year and a half.
Though Washington first supported those rebels in order to undermine Assad, it now sees them as essential for the next stage of its push against the Islamic State. This past summer, President Barack Obama championed a proposal to train and equip them through a Pentagon-run program. Congress gave final approval to that in September, and the plan received a reference in Obama's recent State of the Union address. It is set to begin later in the spring at bases in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and is intended to train about 5,000 rebels this year.
The Obama administration describes that rebel force as the best hope for retaking territory from the Islamic State in Syria. But those rebels have said they will not tolerate any cooperation with Assad, even if some influential media outlets and foreign policy analysts in the U.S. see it as inevitable.
Indeed, because Assad's military has already been severely weakened and because the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State is already tacitly coordinating with Assad by avoiding any direct conflict with his forces or those of his foreign backers -- like the Lebanese political-military group Hezbollah and the often hostile government of Iran -- it remains unclear how further cooperation with the dictator would help.
Still, in the Foreign Affairs interview, Assad was humming a tune the West would appreciate. Tepperman noted that the Syrian leader spoke of minimizing Washington's military footprint in the Middle East, an idea popular among anti-war thinkers in the West.
That take has previously won Assad some support. Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, a longtime chronicler of U.S. military excesses, wrote in 2013 and then again last year that claims about Assad's abuse of his own people -- particularly regarding his use of chemical weapons in August 2013 -- had been cooked up to force U.S. intervention. A scathing essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books challenged Hersh's evidence for those stories. Sociologist and commentator Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, of Scotland's University of Stirling, suggested that Hersh had "a warped hierarchy of concerns" because of his skepticism about U.S. military intervention in Syria.
Assad knows how to play on that hierarchy of concerns -- and to exploit the related worldview that leads many in Washington to see the threat of the Islamic State as a bigger concern than the tyranny of his regime.
Tepperman closed his commentary by underscoring how difficult it would be to both cooperate with Assad and work with the Syrian rebels. Assad, he wrote, "is ready to concede absolutely nothing to bring the sides together ... all his enemies, in the region and in the West, must capitulate and concede the merits of his own twisted arguments."