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Airstrikes are now underway against jihadists in Syria. As ISIS’ grip weakens, the United States and her allies must work quickly to ensure Assad does not fill the void.
For Syria’s opposition, there is a cruel irony in the fact that, just over one year after the cancellation of planned missiles strikes to punish Assad’s chemical weapon use, American and Arab warplanes and missiles are finally in Syria’s skies.
This time the target is not the regime itself, but the de facto capital of ISIS in the city of Raqqa, eastern Syria. But will Assad welcome the assault on his enemies, and in the absence of a ground force to step in, will the regime benefit? And what is the longer-term implication of these strikes?
A Broad Arab Coalition
First, we should recognise that the Obama administration has pulled an impressive coalition out of the hat. Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are all reported to have taken part in the strikes or contributed to them. The absence of NATO-ally Turkey is disappointing, though it is possible Ankara will join in after President Erdogan meets with Vice President Joe Biden at the UN General Assembly this week.
Given that these Sunni-majority and Sunni-led Arab nations have all been intensely opposed to the Assad regime and have long supported Syria’s rebels, their participation is symbolically crucial, particularly given that there is no UN Resolution to authorise this extension of the war. Securing a prominent, high-level Arab role is a major diplomatic success, although the delay has likely come at some military cost.
Limiting Opportunities for Assad
Second, the US dilemma is how it can weaken ISIS without creating opportunities for the Assad regime to fill the vacuum; this is an especially strong concern given the sensitivities of the US’ Arab co-combatants. The target set is important here. Many Syrian opponents of Assad will be angered, for instance, that it was not just ISIS, but also Khorasan – an Al-Qa’ida cell within Syria, sometimes described as a subset of the Al-Qa’ida affiliate and anti-Assad group Jabhat al-Nusra – that was also attacked on Tuesday, near Idlib and away from the other targets, after US officials pointed to its ‘imminent attack plotting against the United States’. If the US continues to target rebels other than ISIS, this will complicate continued Arab involvement.
Against these claims, the US will argue that the Assad regime simply isn’t very strong in the relevant areas, particularly after the fall of al-Tabqa Airfield to the west of Raqqa late last month, and that the US commitment to training 5,000 rebels in Saudi Arabia will eventually fill this gap. But the fact is that the Syrian opposition is too weak, incapable, and distant to roll back ISIS under the cover of these strikes – and this could create opportunities for the Assad regime, presenting the US with an unpalatable choice between acquiescing ijn regime advances or expanding its mission to prevent this.
The absence of an effective ground force also constrains what the strikes can achieve in areas with dense civilian populations or terrain that affords cover, meaning that the military targets will be confined to exposed material and military infrastructure, such as training camps and arms depots. The US aim is not to destroy ISIS, but to weaken it and ensure that the group cannot use Syria as a safe haven from the escalating campaign of strikes in next-door Iraq.
Third, it appears from this first set of strikes that the US decided to strike at ISIS without an initial campaign to destroy Syrian air defences. President Obama had hinted at this last week, when he confided in a select group of American columnists that, if Assad offered resistance, ‘he would order American forces to wipe out Syria’s air defence system [and] that such an action by Mr Assad would lead to his overthrow’.
There is, therefore, an implicit bargain between Obama and Assad. If Assad stands down his defences, he gets to survive. Obama is likely relieved he has had no need to ‘wipe out’ this system, because it included Russian advisors and operators, and US bombs falling on Russian military personnel would probably go down badly in Moscow. But if this campaign stretches on for weeks or months, might Assad find it necessary to mount, at least, some symbolic resistance? The fact that Israel this morning shot down a Syrian fighter jet – the first such interception since 1989 – suggests that the regime may be getting edgy.
Implications for British Policy
Britain seems likely to recall Parliament, perhaps as early as Friday, to discuss its own possible participation in strikes. Three issues are outstanding: whether Britain will conduct airstrikes; whether these airstrikes will be confined to Iraq, or also cover Syria; and, finally, how any campaign will be limited in scope and time, particularly with a general election approaching.
Given that France commenced airstrikes in Iraq last week but ruled out action in Syria without a UN Resolution (unattainable, given Russia’s opposition), Britain may choose to follow this example, thereby setting aside the legal and therefore political complications that would arise from a Syrian role, confident that it would not be isolated in this. Moreover, with Arab states playing such a prominent role in the Syrian mission, British participation there is less important, because the coalition already has the appearance of breadth.
More broadly, the Arab role will likely help the government secure the support of Labour in Parliament and British public opinion more broadly. But, given the likelihood that ISIS will remain present in Syrian cities this time next year, even with sustained bombardment, the question is how to fashion a flexible and limited British policy that can retain political and public support over an extended period of time.