Over the past few months, the Islamic State has done a tremendous job of defeating the Iraqi military and gaining key territory. On Sept. 30, the Islamic State successfully ambushed an Iraqi military column in the Abu Aytha area north of Ramadi. And a few weeks ago, just north of Fallujah, the jihadists overran Camp Saqlawiya and took control of the nearby town of Alsigir. Fallujah has been under the control of the Islamic State since the beginning of January.
On October 2, the Islamic State also took over the town of Hit west of Ramadi. The militants are said to be in control of over 90 percent of the town, with their flag flying over various government buildings in the city. And while the attack was defended against, the Islamic State also attacked the Anbar Operations Command. However, the Wall Street Journal reports that the US has recently stepped up airstrikes in Anbar Province. It is unclear if the pace of airstrikes in Anbar will continue or if they will even be effective at stopping Islamic State militants from taking more of Anbar.
Looking at Syria, the Islamic State has been gaining ground in northern Aleppo, especially near Kobane, and is continuing to advance in eastern Syria. While the pictures have since been taken down from Justpaste.it, a website that jihadists use to post their propaganda, the Islamic State recently touted overrunning a Syrian Republican Guard position in Deir al Zour. As mentioned above, while some have offered solutions to the crisis at hand, what some have proposed would be more detrimental than beneficial. One such solution: Working with Iran and Bashar al Assad.
Why it Wouldn't Work:
While it should be rather axiomatic at this point, the conflict in both Iraq and Syria (which should really be considered one conflict now) is largely sectarian. The Islamic State has threatened to commit genocide against the ancient Yezidi peoples, essentially bragged about taking Yezidi women hostage, killed hundreds of Shi'ite civilians in both Iraq and Syria, and they continue to take the fight to the Kurdish peoples.
Looking specifically at the Shi'ites, of which both Iran and Assad are, it would be unwise to enter a sectarian conflict on the side of Shi'ites against a Sunni militant group. The Islamic State, the said Sunni group, has been successful in Iraq, and some parts Syria, because of local Sunni support. Sunnis in Iraq largely support(ed) them because of a larger hatred of the Shi'ite government in Baghdad; alignment with the Islamic State allowed for greater rights and autonomy for Sunnis in western and northern Iraq. It should also be noted that part of Islamic State propaganda deals with how Iran, and the larger Shi'ite sect of Islam, disenfranchises and largely discriminates against Sunni's (as well as calling Shi'ites numerous derogatory terms). Not only that, but how Shi'ites and the United States have a grand scheme against them. Cooperating with Iran in Iraq would only play into this propaganda, further alienating potential Sunni allies.
These Sunni allies are incredibly necessary in order to defeat the Islamic State. Taking away from their Sunni support base would leave the Islamic State with less recruitment opportunities, less public support and would lead to territory being recaptured by Sunnis. Essentially, a new Sunni Awakening will have to happen if the Islamic State is to ever be defeated--not supporting Shi'ite militias. The Sunni Awakening was incredibly effective at defeating al Qaeda in Iraq (now known as the Islamic State) alongside a US troop surge and a large-scale counterterrorism offensive initiated by General Stanley McChrystal. After the US pullout of Iraq, the Sunni tribal allies were largely abandoned by the Iraqi government; this lead to some joining the Islamic State.
A new Sunni Awakening will also have to happen in Syria. In early August, a prime opportunity was lost to support a Sunni tribal revolt against the Islamic State in Deir al Zour. Hundreds of Sunnis in the al She'etat tribe rose up against the Islamic State after the latter detained some members of the tribe. The two were locked in fierce combat with each other for several weeks, with scores killed on each side. Several Sunni tribesmen in Syria reached out for help to form a grassroots movement to counter the Islamic State, however, no outside support ever came. What became of this tribal revolt was around 700 members of the tribe being brutally executed by the Islamic State, with many being beheaded and the videos posted online to show their defeat.
The tribe could have been successful if it had proper support from outside sources, like the West. But working with Assad would only allow for more Syrians to turn to extremism, to turn to al Qaeda or the Islamic State. While this has already happened to some degree out of frustration of airstrikes in Syria against al Qaeda or the Islamic State but none on Assad, it would surely exacerbate the situation if we were to outright assist Assad. As Hassan Hassan points here, Assad has by and large barely targeted the Islamic State. How serious would he really be about targeting the group when they distract various rebel forces from attacking his troops? The Islamic State has been wonderful for Assad in terms of taking the operational focus off of him, which has allowed his forces to make gains in various parts of Syria.
If the Islamic State is to be defeated, a new, stronger grassroots movement, another Sunni Awakening, will have to occur in both Syria and Iraq. But, not only that, it would have to occur under a larger, more comprehensive approach to the situation. It may become evident that ground forces are needed, not as occupying forces, but as actual liberators and protectors against the viciousness of the Islamic State. However, working directly with Iran and Bashar al Assad should not occur. This would only serve to stoke up more sectarian tension, work in the Islamic State's favor, take away support from Sunni populations (which is desperately needed to push back the Islamic State from the ground up), and would only turn out to be more detrimental than beneficial in the mid to long term.
One last point: Some have said that Iran's troops should be restricted to Baghdad and southern Iraq if the United States were to directly cooperate with them. I don't think Iran's troops, conventional or unconventional, would be satisfied with just that. Already, Quds Force and Shi'ite militias are fighting in the northern Baghdad belt region (which includes the towns of Balad, Ishaqi, Dujail, Dojama, and Khalis) after being sent there to assist the Iraqi government forces that are struggling to hold on to ground there. Samarra, a city in the northern Salahadin province, has also seen Iranian troops and their Shi'ite militias in its streets.
The New York Times also said in June that, "Shiite militia leaders said that at least four brigades, each with 2,500 to 3,000 fighters, had been hastily assembled and equipped in recent weeks by the Shiite political parties to protect Baghdad and the political process in Iraq. They identified the outfits as the Kataibe Brigade, the Assaib Brigade, the Imam al-Sadr Brigade and the armed wing of the Badr Organization."
Muqtada al Sadr, who once led the infamous Mahdi Army and is a keen Iranian ally in Iraq, has also called to form special Shi'ite groups to protect Shi'ite shrines in the entirety of Iraq--this includes several shrines in northern Iraq. I find it highly unlikely that the Iranians would be content to only be allowed to operate in just the southern parts of Iraq--which doesn't even include Diyala Province, where the Islamic State threatens them the most.