1 - What are the likely consequences of airstrikes against IS for the balance of power in Syria?
1 .1 Likely Repercussions of the US campaign: IS and rebel forces
Surely the strikes degrade IS militarily to some extent (but Daesh infrastructures are easy to move, more weapons might fall into their hands, and heavy casualties are not a problem for them as they value ‘martyrdom’ and new jihadists join the group), but they do not diminish IS popularity, on the contrary, they now have the acquired legitimacy of being anti USA/West (on top of the appeal of radicalism, virility and glory; of the first jihadist Caliphate, of sectarian mobilisation to defend Sunnis and of the first serious challenge to borders established by Western powers after ww1). Moreover, the international war on IS has won Daesh the support of Salafists and jihadists from around the globe especially after the international coalition strikes.
Daesh is weakened for a number or reasons (overstretched militarily, fighting in unknown territory, confronting determined forces, deprived of oil revenues) but can hardly be defeated by air strikes alone. Six weeks into the Kobane fight and they are still there. Air power alone cannot re-take territory and control it. Kurdish peshmerga and Shi’a forces cannot take and hold territory in the Sunni areas that are the core of IS’s territory. The Syrian army and the Iraqi army are not able to do that either. Crucially, it is not enough to kill people in order to eradicate Daesh: ground troops should be there working with the civilian population, supported by serious work on the political level and ‘work of mind’. As Peter Harling wrote, the image of evil terrorists calls for a military solution, and closes our eyes to politics, to the requirements of an effective anti-IS strategy (careful consideration to the reasons for its appeal); effective support to local anti IS rebel forces and Sunni forces on the Iraqi side of the border; plus serious moves from Gulf countries in countering the IS ideology and joining the anti-IS alliance.
Intentionally or not, the strikes are weakening anti-Assad groups: Some Syrian activists portray the coalition strikes as a broader war on the Syrian revolution. First, Syrian army and militias are advancing in the territory left by IS. Second, air strikes deep into the Idlib province targeting al-Nusra (which was not a declared target, although considered a terrorist group by the US) without prior consultation or coordination with rebel forces resulted in the final blow to US/Western credibility as a reliable ally. Many rebel groups are angry at the US having abandoned the goal of ousting Assad and they are now likely to disengage with the US (thus undermining the US declared strategy to build a coalition of moderate rebels to combat IS). Third, Al-Nusra allegedly turned on two rebel groups specifically because they were supported by the US. This will also deter other potentially pro-US rebel groups from working with the US. Fourth, support of Sunni anti-Assad forces for IS, seen now as the only effective anti-Assad force remaining on the ground, is likely to increase. Moreover, airstrikes showed that the US ‘has chosen Iraq’ giving up on trying to root IS out of Syria, thus leaving Syrian civilians at the mercy of Daesh and allowing them a base from which to threaten the region and a hotbed for jihadists worldwide, whilst rebel groups who joined the US have become a target of al Qaeda, IS and Assad – paying the price for US mistakes. Finally, the longer term consequences of sustained and prolonged airstrikes could be a trend of jihadi returnees importing terrorism in their home countries; the spread of IS ideology in countries of the jihadist diaspora, and the possible emergence of an even more radical jihadist ideology.
1.2 Likely Repercussions of the US campaign: the regime
The strikes have benefited the regime, which unsurprisingly is ‘ok with the attacks’ (Moallem). For the regime, the air campaign is a tangible sign of converged interests (a common enemy) between Washington and Damascus, which they read as another step in the direction of further ‘anti-terrorism’ cooperation. The regime is now waiting for another conjuncture that could make possible a comprehensive solution of the crisis - on terms convenient for the Assad junta.
Crucially, the US intervention does not add any pressure on the regime to change its military and political strategy nor to make any political concessions. The regime has continued its indiscriminate attacks on opposition groups and civilians – the same tactics that, coupled with the withdrawal of state forces, created the jihadi problem in the first place. Coalition strikes conducted in the absence of a strategy vis-à-vis the regime are de facto helping it in its ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign both militarily and rhetorically.
As long as the coalition campaign ignores the Assad regime and his military solution – the main obstacle to a political transition – it is favouring this side. Unable to reach a consensus in the UNSC, the West consistently helped the regime: see the Geneva negotiations and the choice to trade a chemical arm deal with the end of the Syrian nightmare. This brings into the equation the role of Israel - the big absent in any discussion of Syria –, which is the first beneficiary of the chemical arm agreement.
2 - Should the crisis be used to attempt a new drive for a political power-sharing arrangement in Syria?
Who could see this conjuncture as a drive for a political power sharing? The strikes have not changed the political preferences of the fighting parties yet nor have widened the range of possible choices/moves in their eyes (one, ‘down with Assad first’; second, ‘Assad or we burn the country’; and third, down with all you guys and welcome to a revived Islamic entity).
For the regime to take an initiative, to use this favourable momentum (as the balance of military advantage remains with the state) and negotiate a political arrangement, this would require them to abandon their preferred solution – the total annihilation of any opposition, military and civilian. There are no signs – now as in the previous three years - that they are considering to use military or diplomatic advantages as a weight to throw in political negotiations (I have no knowledge of behind the scene diplomacy, effective or ineffective). Assad’s comments about the UN initiative to ‘freeze’ fighting in Aleppo are too vague to signal a real change of strategy - probably just a cautious diplomatic move as the US air force is flying over Syria.
Could the air strike campaign change any element in the calculation of regional powers and make them throw their weight behind a political solution? Turkey has slowly reconsidered its policy toward IS (especially since Kobane). Yet Turkey’s preferred solution has not changed. I do not see the likelihood of a regional forum in which ‘Friends of Syria' or other actors could put pressure on Assad to accept some limited power sharing agreement.
Moreover, because of the polarisation in the Syrian political scenario, the more prolonged the conflict – in the absence of a radical change of strategy on part of the international and regional powers - the more difficult a credible and sustainable power sharing arrangement is going to be, in spite of the ‘war fatigue’ argument. It is interesting that IS, an actor who is largely outside the Syrian political game, is causing a rethink.
3 - Should the air campaign be turned, as Turkey urges, against the regime in order to force it into a transition?
The question suggests that the option of isqat al nizam is already out of question. But is it for all the warring parties? Surely not.
A campaign to force the regime into a transition should have been done a long time ago, in my opinion. But looking at facts, this has never been on the Western agenda, and it is not now. The ongoing military involvement can at best help maintain the power status quo, including borders and dictators, whilst alternatives that might be acceptable to all parties have not been defined yet. For the West, a real alternative would involve negotiating hard with Russia and Iran on matters of intervention, economic compensation (reduce sanctions?), progress on the Iran nuclear file, the role of Quds Force and Hezbollah, and regional security architecture.
Who is willing and able to initiate an air campaign against Assad? Turkey is hesitant to intervene unilaterally – perhaps under the umbrella of NATO, but most EU countries have adopted a ‘wait and see’ policy and a NATO direct intervention in an area of Russian influence is still too risky. A no fly zone (Turkey and the rebel forces’ request) is unlikely as there is no visible change in the Obama administration’s unwillingness to target the regime’s air capacity. Besides Russia, national interests are at stake - US domestic politics other problems (such as Ebola), and a lack of strategic thinking.
As the Assad regime is not considering any meaningful transition (having chosen a military solution instead), the force needed to make them give up some power will probably have to be of such a scale that it will spell the end of the regime altogether. This might as well be one of the reasons why the West does not want to seriously engage in a solution to the Syrian war: if nothing short of the end of the regime is the necessary condition for change, then a new Syria would throw a number of issues on the table (role of Iran, regional security, sectarian issues, UNSC negotiations, Russian interests, arms transfers, non-state actors, etc.) whose complexity is such that Western powers appear to prefer the status quo. I can discern little change in the Russian attitude, in the Israeli attitude, in the EU attitude and in American domestic political discourse on Syria, in Obama’s inability or reluctance to pressure Russia and to really threaten Assad. The status quo is the best scenario for Israel and any future development in sight (if the US takes the lead of some sort of not-going-too-far transition; if Syrians and foreign mercenaries keep killing each other for years to come; if eventually Assad stays) is welcomed by Tel Aviv. In any case, the interests of Israel will be protected. The Syrian people are dying in the hundreds of thousands, a political catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude in the region, yet the Syrian nakba is not considered significant enough to justify a deeper engagement or even the short-term costs involved in finding a solution. Shall we wait for the spill over (returned jihadists in particular) to see a much more robust approach?
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