1 - What are the likely consequences of airstrikes against ISIS for the balance of power in Syria?
Airstrikes in Syria have been carried out by the US-led coalition in an attempt to counter the spread of Islamic State (IS). While the strikes, which predominantly target Iraq, appear to have shown some success in stalling IS advances, many commentators (including a senior Pentagon planning officer) admit that the impact of strikes alone will be minimal in the long run. Meanwhile, ISIS could stand to benefit from the shifts in the balance of power that the airstrikes are instigating. There are two principal reasons for this.
First, the strikes are exactly the sign of aggression that ISIS will have hoped to provoke from the Western powers. The fact that they have succeeded in gaining a response will have boosted ISIS’s self-perception as a force to be reckoned with vis-à-vis the West and its allies. The strikes also indirectly boost the ability of ISIS to market itself as the only force willing (unlike the West) and able (unlike rebel forces in their current state) to take on the regime. The strength of will is critically important for the appeal of ISIS to the populations of the Arab states. For them, the ISIS-targeted strikes will strengthen a perception that Western priorities in the region are self-serving. For the US in particular, this is clearly reflected in the millions it has pledged on arming moderate rebel forces on the ground, compared to the estimated billions it looks likely to spend on airstrikes against ISIS. ISIS can therefore claim, more concretely, that it is the only serious force in this regional conflict, elevating its appeal to increasingly weary fighters on the ground.
Second, this warped sense of priorities hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rebel forces themselves, whose priority of defeating of the regime has become marginalized by the West’s battle against ISIS. The strategy of the US for tackling ISIS relies heavily on the support of rebels on the ground, and assumes that rebels will be willing to leave their regions and towns to ‘take the fight to ISIS’. However, without giving the rebels a good reason to do so, the US and their allies will be unable to rally the support they need to tackle the advancement of ISIS effectively. The result of this mismatch of priorities significantly reduces the ‘upside’ of working in US-vetted/backed alliances of rebel groups, whose focus is being drawn away from fighting the regime, to fighting ISIS. The wariness of rebel groups towards the US is compounded by the confusion on the ground caused by the US and the regime hitting the same targets (with the regime often continuing/escalating strikes after coalition strikes cease). This fuels sentiments that at best the coalition strikes are inadvertently helping the regime and at worst that they are conducted in direct collusion with the regime. This shows how the airstrikes have revealed a divergent set of goals on the one hand and muddied the waters of alliances on the other. This has the potential to fracture the opposition further and to discourage rebel forces from joining the moderate alliances working with the Western coalition. Again, ISIS stands to gain. As the debate surrounding the above continues amongst the opposition, ISIS retains a strategic clarity that allows it to pursue its goals, unabated by shifting alliances or conditional resource flows.
At a more granular level, the crux of the balance of power in Syria lies in Aleppo, where the stakes for all parties are very high. Crisis group’s recent report on Syria highlights that the ground the rebels hold in Aleppo is the rebels’ most valuable asset. If the coalition strikes push ISIS out of Kobane, this could lead to a serious escalation of ISIS efforts in the countryside north of Aleppo. Without a serious ground defense from rebel forces to defend the territory they hold, ISIS would have a very real chance of overrunning them. The result of this, according to Crisis Group, would mean the de-facto defeat of the opposition and would render the chance of a negotiated solution hopeless. The war would continue, with ISIS absorbing rebel remnants and further stretching its reach across northern and eastern Syria.
2 - Should the crisis be used to attempt a new drive for a political power-sharing arrangement in Syria?
Before this question can be answered, a fundamental shift in the mindset of all the parties involved in the conflict has to occur: from war to peace. The appetite for a political process is inhibited by the immediacy of military challenges.
3 - Should the air campaign be turned, as Turkey urges, against the regime in order to force it into a transition?
The likelihood of this happening is very low. Turkey’s urging of the US-led coalition to turn airstrikes against the regime shows a clear reluctance to recognize the fundamental differences in the priorities of Turkey and the US.
It is worth noting here that Turkey has a track record of misjudging events in Syria, which manifests itself in a string of false assumptions: that the Syrian regime would reform; that it would quickly collapse soon after Turkey turned against it; that the West would topple the regime; that arming and funding rebel groups entering Syria would cause Assad to fall. All these assumptions have proven incorrect, but crucially we do not see that lessons have been learnt. Rather, Erdoğan and his advisers continue to form policy around how they hope things will turn out, rather than calculating what the likely outcomes would be.
The same is true of how they are approaching the handling of ISIS. Turkey perceives the threats emerging from the Syrian crisis in this order: the potential strengthening of the PKK is the most immediate, then Assad, then ISIS. For the US, the reverse is true. The US-led airstrikes on Syrian and Iraqi territory have the very specific aim of pursuing ISIS, which it sees as its primary threat. Furthermore, both Secretary of State John Kerry and Commander of US Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, have recently stated that the US operation in Syria is ‘peripheral’ to the operation in Iraq, where the primary focus of its counter-terrorist efforts will remain.
For the US and its allies to even consider targeting the Assad regime under the pretext of its counter-terrorism strategy it would have to be absolutely convinced 5 that there was clear and absolute causality between the survival of the regime and the spread of ISIS. Even then, it would be a complex process to transform a counter-terrorism mission into what could essentially lead to a Western-led military intervention to destabilize the regime (as in Libya) - and the reasons why this would be near impossible are well cited.
As a final point, whether or not the Assad regime and ISIS indirectly add fuel to each other’s fire, the two sides are fundamentally incompatible in the long run and, from the US’s perspective, the regime would undoubtedly come out as the lesser of two evils. It would therefore be imprudent for the US to launch an attack on the regime before the threat of ISIS had been eliminated and a credible opposition had stepped up to the table. As both of these preconditions are a long way off, the prospect of US-led military action against the regime would appear to be a very distant prospect.
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.