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Analyst: U.S. Needs To 'Deconflict' Syria To Defeat ISIS

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. Congress voted this week to train and equip the so-called Moderate Syrian Rebels to help fight ISIS. It's one of the tactics in President Obama's strategy to try to degrade and destroy the terror group. But the fight against ISIS without aiding the Syrian regime is a balancing act. Christopher Harmer is an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and joins us in our studios. Thank you for being with us.

CHRISTOPHER HARMER: Pleasure to be with you today. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So if the U.S. is taking on the Islamic State in Syria and so is the Assad regime, isn't the enemy of my enemy my ally, if not my friend?

HARMER: Well, I wouldn't say my ally. But it is a situation where the best way to describe that is the American military will wind up de-conflicting with the Syrian military, rather than cooperating with...

SIMON: De-conflicting is the phrase Secretary Kerry used. It threw me. I don't know the phrase.

HARMER: It's interesting because the military uses that phrase all the time because, you know, words do matter. And de-confliction is sort of a military phrase that says we are not going to work with this military organization. But we are going to observe their patterns - what we call a pattern of life - and we are going to organize our pattern of life so as not to conflict with theirs. Let me give you an example of this.

The standard procedure for the Iranian Navy, as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy - two different maritime organizations within Iranian security structure - they've got a pretty robust package, which we called the standard harassment package of the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. Any the time U.S. Navy ships go into or out of the Persian Gulf, they do some radio jamming. They do some propaganda chatter on the radios. They'll send out patrol boats to kind of buzz us and harass us, and it's not really that big a deal. This first time you see it, it's kind of exciting in a bad way, but after a while, you figure OK this is the standard harassment package. When we invaded Iraq in 2003, I was in the Persian Gulf, and it was just astonishing to me how much the Iranian military scaled back their presence. Now obviously, in that case, Saddam Hussein was the enemy of the United States and was the enemy of the Iranians. So while we did not cooperate with the Iranians, we certainly de-conflicted our operations. I think the same thing is going to wind up happening in Syria.

SIMON: I wonder, though, when the U.S. agreed months ago not to strike Syria - backing away from the so-called red line - if the Assad regime agreed to a plan to remove its chemical weapons, didn't the U.S. and the Assad regime de facto become partners anyway?

HARMER: Well, we became - it's not a binary solution. It's not either we're friends or we're enemies. There's a whole big gray area in between. And I would say that Syria went from being a potential target of American military action to a non-target for the limited term. So Assad cut the deal. He said I'll give up my chemical weapons. You know, he dragged his feet a little bit. But by all accounts, he has met the criteria that we previously established, that we would not actively target him. So again, I would say, we're not actively cooperating with or friendly with Syria. We've just cut a deal with them that, for the foreseeable future, we're not going to target them.

SIMON: On the other hand, we are targeting that group, which has maybe been his most successful opponent in the field.

HARMER: That is correct. From a military perspective, certainly ISIS - or the Islamic State - has been by far and away the most tactically proficient. As an amateur military historian, as a professional military strategist, I'm just impressed - in a bad way - with how well ISIS has done over the last 18 months. There isn't a single military organization that IS has gone head-to-head with that they haven't defeated. Now, in the past six weeks because of American military support, particularly airstrikes, the expansion of the Islamic State into Kurdistan, and south into the Shiite controlled areas of Iraq, has been stopped and, to a very minor extent, rolled back. But that's only happened when American air power has been there to assist the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army.

SIMON: Christopher Harmer, analyst of the Institute for the Study of War. Thanks very much.

HARMER: Thank you so much for your time. Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.