US air strikes in Syria and the fight against the Islamic State

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

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

The United States, together with a number of regional allies, has now launched military strikes against Islamic State (IS) positions in Syria, with the immediate stated aim of counter-terrorism rather than regime change. After more than three years of civil war, radical Islamists have finally drawn the US into direct intervention.

But with US action unlikely to be decisive right away, especially given the absence of ground troops, the prospects for success remain very uncertain. Both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and non-IS rebels are actively trying to position themselves as the West’s natural partner in the fight against extremism. However, they, as well as some of the regional players who now support air strikes, remain at cross-purposes with the US about the aims of the war as well as about the threat posed by IS.

Critically, Obama’s narrow counter-terrorism focus is by and large not shared by Syria’s non-IS affiliated warring parties, which view the group’s relevance through the prism of the ongoing civil war. Unlike Western powers, neither the regime nor non-IS rebels are primarily occupied with IS’s strength as a jihadi group – though of course it is a concern. Instead, both see IS as a means of leveraging international support to secure victory in the broader domestic conflict. This is an instinct partly shared by two of the key regional partners involved in air strikes, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. As such, the fallout from the attacks threatens new uncertainties and potentially even deeper disarray.

Europe, for its part, has remained silent.

Europe, for its part, has remained silent. Neither the United Kingdom nor France has joined the initial wave of strikes, a hesitation that can in part be viewed as a symptom of the lack of a clear strategy. The uncertainties inherent in the strikes mean that the UK government is wary of parliamentary opposition to action, while France fears that limited intervention will serve to empower the regime in Damascus.

For Assad, the creation of an international coalition targeting IS represents the hoped-for successful culmination of three years of deliberate strategy partly aimed at forcing the West to recognise him as a necessary partner. While claims of direct collaboration between Assad and IS appear largely unfounded, the regime has long focused its military campaign on non-IS rebels as a means of consolidating extremist trends.

Now, however, the regime has finally initiated a campaign of air strikes against IS – even if it is still channelling most of its resources against weaker non-IS rebels – and is calling for a common international front against IS. The West continues to state that Assad can have no partnership role in the campaign, but Assad believes the US and Europe will eventually reverse position. Already there are some reports of intelligence sharing, and the US government alerted Damascus ahead of initiating air strikes.

Nonetheless, Assad is playing a risky game. IS may represent an opportunity, but it also poses significant threats, not least its growing military strength. IS’s expansion together with a number of recent victories against regime forces is also provoking increased dissent among regime loyalists, who are angered by Assad’s apparent unwillingness or inability to wholly 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 still hesitant position towards a group that threatens their broader regional interests.

Of most concern to the regime, however, is that this now plays out as envisaged by non-IS rebels: through significant international arming of the opposition. Even if Obama has initially committed to narrow US ambitions in Syria, including the limited training and arming of some rebel fighters – aimed at containing IS, rather than bringing down the regime – the insistence that there can be no co-ordination with Assad offers rebels an opportunity to position themselves as the West’s only viable partner on the ground. With air strikes only likely to go so far in weakening an increasingly embedded and emboldened IS, this could eventually result in heavier direct arming.

The overthrow of the regime remains the rebels' central preoccupation.

What is clear is that many of these rebels see the fight against IS as of secondary importance. The overthrow of the regime remains the rebels' 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. Given their likely inconclusive nature, they risk drawing the West into deeper intervention. While Obama has clearly stated that US intervention in Syria will remain limited, those calling for wider action may see the proposed initial strikes and arming of rebels as the thin edge of the wedge, with further escalation inevitable.

Significantly, narrow air strikes that inflict collateral damage and leave the regime unscathed also risk further empowering IS, consolidating its self-declared position as the only legitimate defender of Syria’s Sunni population. IS’s apparent goading of the US to intervene in Syria and Iraq through the public beheading of a number of hostages may appear misguided given the power that the American military can bring to bear. But blunt military intervention may help entrench local support behind the group.

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

Author

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme