1 - What are the likely consequences of airstrikes against ISIS for the balance of power in Syria?
Since the military action against ISIS in Syria is not combined with a political one and is not part of a broader strategy to address the Syrian war, the airstrikes might have more negative implications than positive ones. Indeed, the airstrikes would weaken ISIS but they will not eliminate it. In other words, the military attack might shrink ISIS’ capabilities inside Syria for the short term, but it will not abolish ISIS as an actor in Syria in the long-term. Instead it might strengthen the Jihadi ideology among ISIS fighters and among Syrian fighters of other Salafi militias as in their eyes the West is targeting them for the religious ideology they proclaim, while on the other hand, the West is not targeting the Assad regime despite of the violence that it is practicing.
In essence, the airstrikes might shift the balance of power toward Salafi militias on the ground, particularly towards Ahrar al Sham and Liwa al Islam who are competing with ISIS to control Northern Syria. These groups seek to achieve an Islamic agenda, yet less radical than ISIS. In addition, airstrikes against ISIS might strengthen al-Nusra Front (another Salafi-Jihadi group seeking to establish the Islamic Caliphate) as it is struggling for hegemony over Northern Syria, particularly over Aleppo and Raqa. Therefore, the US/Western airstrikes are most likely going to empower Salafi militias who are struggling for power on the ground, rather than giving momentum to the Free Syrian Army, which is deemed to be the weakest armed group in Syria. Most importantly, the military attack against ISIS is boosting the Syrian regime position vis-à-vis its rivals and legitimizing its existence since it emphasizes that the top priority for the West is the ISIS crisis rather than toppling the Assad regime.
2 - Should the crisis be used to attempt a new drive for a political power-sharing arrangement in Syria?
Any political power sharing arrangement in Syria should include all actors on the ground. This means that the various Islamic militias, the Free Syrian Army, the Kurds, the secular opposition, and the Syrian regime should sit together at a negotiation table and form an alliance to counter ISIS. Yet, neither the Syrian regime nor the Islamic militants, nor the Kurds are weak enough to be driven to the negotiation table. Certainly, ISIS is not threatening the Syrian regime’s interest; on the contrary, the very existence of ISIS is legitimizing the regime, given the absence of a solid secular opposition. Moreover, the Syrian regime is enjoying now a powerful position in comparison to one year ago (after the chemical weapon attack and the Western threat to bomb the regime’s headquarters in Damascus) and hence the Syrian regime is not under pressure to rush to the negotiation table and compromise working with its rivals. What is the carrot that the regime or its rivals would gain from a political power sharing? The regime as mentioned previously is enjoying a powerful position now, the Islamic militias as well enjoy autonomy power over particular areas, and the Kurds are a de facto ruler over the Kurdish areas. ISIS is not the number one ‘enemy’ for all actors on the ground and therefore it will not be considered an incentive for a political power-sharing arrangement in Syria.
However, most importantly, it should be noted that any political power-sharing agreement will not see light without the backing of all external actors involved in the Syrian drama; namely: the US, Russia, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran. These actors should first agree on a political power-sharing agreement between themselves over Syria and then advance it in the Syrian territories among the Syrian actors. Once the external actors reach an agreement over the Syrian war, a political power sharing arrangement could be orchestrated, as each actor has the stake to push its proxy to the negotiation table.
3 - Should the air campaign be turned, as Turkey urges, against the regime in order to force it into a transition?
Any military action that is not combined with a political strategy would be a failure and would backfire. It would be irrational to target the regime without having a post-Assad scenario in hand. Chaos would prevail, the state institutions would fail and it would be extremely hard to re-build the state. Therefore, before forcing the regime into a transition, there should be a clear vision of the transitional period and its actors.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as in way representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.