Western Operations Against ISIS: Holding Back in Syria

Unlike the United States, British military operations in Iraq have not been extended into Syria. This distinction may not make sense at an operational level, but it reflects continuing uncertainty as to the direction of US policy towards the Assad regime

The UK, along with Australia, Canada and four other European NATO states, is now taking part in bombing raids against ISIS targets in Iraq, as part of a US-led coalition. But none of these countries have been willing to join the US in its combat operations in Syria. And Parliament has ruled out UK combat operations in Syria without the Government coming back to it with a case for doing so.

It is hard to make sense of this distinction at an operational level – after all, ISIS is conducting a cross-border campaign, and many of its key strategic assets are in Syria.

But the distinction does have a strategic logic. The war began as a response to events in Iraq this summer – the fall of Mosul, the collapse of Iraqi Army defences, and the threat of mass slaughter of Kurds, Yazidis and Christians. ISIS advances on Baghdad’s suburbs, and similar atrocities against its Shi’a population, reinforced this primary trigger. The immediate humanitarian imperative was clear.

The political strategy of the campaign in Iraq is also becoming clear – to contain and then degrade ISIS, replacing it with alternative Sunni leaders who command local support. This will require the nurturing of these leaders, and a reversal of the repressive and sectarian policies that helped ISIS to build its support in the first place. Important steps in this direction have been taken by the removal of Nouri al Maliki, and by the broadening of the Iraqi Government.

The growing power of Shi’a militia in the south and east, and Kurdish ambitions in the north, will make this strategy hard to implement. And the recreation of a functioning federal state in Iraq may well be a pipe dream. But, in the absence of an agreed alternative, it is not an unreasonable strategy for now.

In Syria, by contrast, the US has not decided on its strategic objective. Most of its military operations have focused on disrupting support for ISIS forces in Iraq. But mission creep seems likely. Operations to defend Kobane against ISIS in the north, and to attack al Nusra in Syria’s northwest, reflect this trend. There will be more, given the stated objective of ‘containing and eventually destroying’ ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.

To Back or not to Back

Given the limited mass of the forces that the UK, and other Europeans, are able (or willing) to provide, they may have only limited influence on how the US conducts the war. So the most consequential military-strategic decision that they will make is whether or not to join the US operation, and on what terms.

So far, the US is unable to answer the most basic question of strategy in relation to its Syria operation: what is its political objective in the areas of that country currently controlled by ISIS, and in the country as a whole, and how is US military action designed to facilitate the political transition that this would require. As Chuck Hagel, the US Defense Secretary, is reported to have recently argued: ‘The administration’s Syria policy (is) ... in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad.

The US is still formally committed to ending Assad’s rule. In practice, its military effort against ISIS is likely to have the effect of strengthening the regime’s position, allowing it to recapture more territory from rebel forces. The US has rejected French calls for military action to protect key rebel supply lines north of Aleppo, without which the position of moderate Sunni forces could weaken even more. And General John Allen, President Obama’s special envoy, has been reluctant to accept that the FSA units that will be trained with US support should then be used to fight the regime’s armed forces.

In part, US reticence is driven by operational prudence. It does not want to be drawn into a broader war with Syria, with all that this would imply for its relations with Iran and Russia, and with no guarantee of success however deep its involvement becomes.

The US is also playing a broader game, refusing to take action against Assad in order to protect the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard now plays a key role in bolstering Iraq’s defences against ISIS.  Iran helped to persuade Maliki to resign, opening the way for a rather broader government to take his place. Some also see it as playing a future role in achieving a political settlement in Syria: persuading Assad to widen his regime to include moderate opposition elements, so that a united front against ISIS can be built.

While Sunni Arabs constitute only a minority of Iraq’s population, however, they amount to well over half of Syria’s. Moreover, after four years of unremitting and cruel warfare, their willingness to accept Assad in power is limited, to say the least. Even now, the regime continues to use chemical weapons and indiscriminate ‘barrel bombs’ to kill civilians in their thousands. 200,000 have died so far, and ten million Syrians have had to flee their homes.

A sustainable peace cannot be achieved while those responsible for this slaughter remain in power. Guarantees for minorities are key, including recognition of their role in the country’s security forces. But a sustainable political settlement also needs to take account of demographic balance. This requires credible Sunni leaders at its heart, not simply as co-opted members of a Ba’athist-dominated regime.

This is why the Gulf Arabs, Turkey and France believe that the US should do more to provide support to non-ISIS Sunni rebels than the promise to withdraw several thousand rebels from the field in order to retrain them in neighbouring countries. If significantly more aid is not provided soon, the only credible armed opposition to Assad will come from ISIS and al-Nusra (the Syrian wing of Al Qaeda). Further US mission creep (such as strikes against Ahrar al-Sham) could cause more mainstream rebels to defect to ISIS. And choices will narrow even further.

Over the next months, the US will have to make fateful choices as to what it is seeking to achieve in Syria. If, in the aftermath of a nuclear deal, it seeks to deepen cooperation with Iran, and thus with the Assad government, it will damage relations with Gulf allies and Turkey, while doing nothing to tackle the root causes of Sunni radicalisation in that country. If it were to significantly increase military support to mainstream rebels, by contrast, this would risk bringing the US into direct conflict with the Syrian regime, and thus with Iran and Russia.

European governments will have little say in this decision. Where they will have a choice, however, is on whether to lend their military blessing to whatever direction the US chooses to take. Until the US has a clear Syria strategy, therefore, the UK – along with other European allies – is likely to focus its military efforts on Iraq, while emphasising its continuing commitment to secure Assad’s removal.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers is a Director of Research at RUSI


Malcolm Chalmers

Deputy Director-General

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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