The Islamic State and the struggle for control in Syria

Both Assad and his rebel opponents hope to leverage the US fight against the Islamic State to help them win the civil war.

After more than three years of civil war in Syria, the rise and expansion of the Islamic State (IS) has marked a pivotal moment in the development of the devastating conflict. Radical Islamists now undisputedly represent the most powerful force among the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a reality that is bringing to completion the internationalisation of the conflict. In September, the United States, together with a number of regional allies, launched military strikes against IS positions in Syria, though with the immediate stated aim of counter-terrorism rather than regime change. While IS has been heavily targeted, Assad’s forces remain untouched.

But with US action unlikely to be decisive, especially given the absence of ground troops, the prospects for success remain very ambiguous. The fallout from the attacks is already feeding new uncertainties in the longstanding civil war, as well as entrenching local support for IS. Both Assad and the non-IS rebels are actively trying to position themselves as the West’s natural partner in the fight against extremism (as are Syrian Kurds). Critically, however, they, as well as some of the regional players now supporting air strikes, remain at cross-purposes with the US about the aims of the war and about the threat posed by IS.

Most significantly, Obama’s narrow counter-terrorism focus is not shared by Syria’s non-IS affiliated warring parties, which view the group’s relevance through the prism of the ongoing civil war. Neither the regime nor non-IS rebels are primarily occupied with IS’s strength as a jihadist group – although it is a concern. Instead of seeing IS as a unifying interest, both see the group as a means of leveraging international support behind their pursuit of victory in the broader domestic conflict. This is an instinct partly shared by some of the key regional partners involved in air strikes, including Saudi Arabia, which hope that initial US intervention against IS will be a prelude to eventual military action against Assad. Like the rebels, Riyadh says that IS can only be effectively defeated once Assad, who it views as the source of the problem, is removed. Indeed, some countries such as Turkey and France have resisted active engagement in the anti-IS fight in Syria, demanding a more comprehensive targeting of Assad before they join the campaign.

Moreover, by making it clear that air strikes will not target Assad, and by using the strikes to also hit a wider range of opposition groups with extremist links, some of whom are seen as integral elements of the nationalist opposition, the US is rallying some local support behind IS – and thereby exacerbating the very threat it is seeking to address through military action. Many now view the coalition as partnering with the regime, with air strikes therefore acting as a boon to IS recruitment.

IS now controls approximately 35 percent of Syrian territory (although much of the territory it holds is uninhabited), including a significant proportion of the country’s oil fields. The CIA estimates that IS fighters number between 20,000 and 31,500 in Syria and Iraq, though some estimates put the number considerably higher. The number of foreign fighters joining its ranks is increasing steadily. Where it does control population centres, including in the self-declared caliphate’s capital of Raqqa in Syria, IS has established a range of state structures, from education and healthcare services to judicial oversight, positioning itself less as an insurgent group and increasingly as a quasi-state body.

Even if the number of open fronts between IS and the regime remain limited, IS represents the most formidable fighting force standing against the Assad regime. Over recent months, IS has inflicted a number of military defeats on regime forces, signalling the outbreak of open conflict between the two after long periods of effective cohabitation. The group clearly also outmatches other rebel forces in both resources and fighting abilities. Before the beginning of air strikes, the group had been advancing west towards the city of Aleppo and key border crossings with Turkey – an advance that air strikes slowed but did not stop. For a significant segment of Syria’s Sunni population, IS increasingly represents the only legitimate and effective vehicle of opposition to the Assad regime, a sentiment that has deepened as a consequence of US-led air strikes.

IS’s current position in Syria is somewhat remarkable given that, in January 2014, a coalition of rebel armed groups united to take on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as it was then known, and forced it to withdraw from vast swathes of territory. It was IS’s June 2014 surge into Iraq, which significantly boosted its material resources and gave it an aura of unprecedented success, that allowed it to reverse this retreat. But this same advance into Iraq also provoked US President Barack Obama to mobilise a US-led international coalition to “degrade and destroy” the group, initiating the military campaign now under way.

For Assad, the creation of an international coalition targeting IS represents the hoped-for culmination of three years of deliberate strategy partly aimed at forcing the West to recognise him as a necessary partner in the fight against extremism. While claims of direct collaboration between Assad and IS appear largely unfounded, it is clear that the regime has long focused its military campaign on non-IS rebels as a means of consolidating extremist trends. Even as the regime has now initiated a meaningful campaign of air strikes against IS and is calling for a common international front against IS, it nonetheless continues to channel more of its resources towards the fight against weaker non-IS rebels in the hope of cementing a regime-extremist binary. While the West is adamant that Assad cannot play any partnership role in the campaign against IS, he believes the US and Europe will eventually be forced to reverse position.

Assad is playing a risky game. IS may represent an opportunity, but it also poses significant threats, not least its growing military strength, which has already been used to inflict a series of blows on the regime. Recent IS victories against regime forces, notably the seizure of the Tabqa airbase near Raqqa, are also provoking increased dissent among regime loyalists angered by Assad’s apparent unwillingness or inability to fully confront the group. This internal dissent is not game changing but it is noteworthy, particularly if it is tied to unease on the part of the regime’s key external backers, Iran and Hezbollah, over Assad’s hesitant position towards a group that threatens their broader regional interests.

The regime may be most concerned, however, that this will now play out as envisaged by non-IS rebels: through a partnership with the West that results in significant international arming of the opposition, or in wider international action against the regime itself. Even if Obama has committed to narrow ambitions in Syria, including the limited training and arming of some rebel fighters – tied to fighting IS rather than bringing down the regime – the continued insistence that there will be no coordination with Assad offers rebels an opportunity to eventually position themselves as the West’s fighting partner on the ground. With air strikes only going so far in weakening an increasingly embedded and emboldened IS, this could result in wider intervention and heavier direct arming, which a number of coalition countries are now pressing the US to carry out. (Although, if this does happen, Syrian Kurds could be among the prime beneficiaries given their relative unity and perceived moderation compared to other rebel groups – despite claims that they are affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group. The coalition has been forcefully defending the Kurdish city of Kobani since IS launched an attack on the city.)

What is clear, though, is that, Kurds aside, many of these rebels see the fight against IS as of secondary importance. The overthrow of the regime remains their central preoccupation, and weapons channelled their way will primarily be focused on this struggle.

The respective positioning of non-IS rebels and Assad highlights an inconvenient truth: as long as Syria’s civil war rages, international attempts to defeat IS militarily will be significantly hampered, particularly if regional allies are also pulling in different directions. While tactical lines may shift as a result of air strikes, they are unlikely to provoke significant strategic realignments, but will serve to fortify zero-sum ambitions driving the civil war and to feed the narrative that has fuelled IS’s rise. Only when domestic and international actors address and resolve the core dynamics behind the Syrian civil war can there be any hope of defeating IS.

This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

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