August 25, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Air Strikes in Syria: The US Considers a Significant Move

• Without taking action in Syria, the US will be able to push back the so-called Islamic State (IS) after recent Iraqi advances but it will not be able to meaningfully diminish the group

• Any sustained US military action in Syria comes with tremendous complications and geopolitical considerations, among them confrontation with the Assad regime and mission creep with the Syrian civil war

• While it has carved out territory and reaped financial windfall inside Syria, IS will continue to increase as a real risk to the region and beyond, presenting the international community with yet another reason to find a resolution to the ongoing three-year conflict

• Air strikes in both Iraq and Syria are not the solution to the IS threat, but they are part of one.

Recent US airstrikes, combined with Iraq special forces and well-equipped Kurdish peshmerga units, against the terrorist/insurgent group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) provided a needed respite from the seemingly endless run of bad news from Iraq this summer. Despite the reversal on the march to Irbil and the fight over the Mosul Dam, IS continues to solidify its hold on parts of Iraq and will continue to do so until several factors change: one entirely an Iraq factor, the other a US military and policy factor concerning Syria.

The Iraq factor is whether the still-to-be-formed new national government can unify the ever-quarreling factions enough to present a common face to the IS enemy and decrease its support. This weekend’s sectarian killings by both Shi’a and Sunni elements further complicate the already complicated maneuvering to get some semblance of cooperation between all the sides (though the joint Iraqi Army-peshmerga campaign at the Mosul dam was as effective as it was unprecedented). After the mass killing at a Sunni mosque during Friday prayers on August 22 in Diyala Province, the members of the Sunni coalition have walked away from forming the new government, though it is not clear how long they will remain out of the process. The US can try to persuade and cajole all sides but this will be an Iraqi affair, and likely will be quite untidy even though it is vital.

The US factor is quite complicated as well, and equally vital. Limited airstrikes in Iraq are and will continue to be effective at blunting IS momentum and keeping it from more gains. But it will do nothing to fundamentally weaken the group, since the source of much of IS power resides across the border in Syria. IS will increase as a threat as long as it has sanctuary—for which it has fought hard the Assad regime and its allies as well as other Sunni extremist and mainstream rebels to establish—and the vast financial revenues inside Syria, no matter how many air strikes the US conducts over northern Iraq. Air strikes in Iraq help buy time for the Iraqi defenses to improve, and help protect US interests in the country. It does nothing to address the increasing threat of IS to the region and beyond.

However, the decision to conduct air strikes in Syria is a major one and would represent a significant policy shift. The Assad regime does have an operating modern air force and has a relatively formidable air defense system provided by, and from the doctrine of, Russia over many years. While IS doesn’t have an air force and will be exceedingly vulnerable to sustained air strikes in the areas it controls and operates in Syria, Bashar al-Assad does, and while he is also fighting IS, the Syrian president will likely react to what would be a US military air invasion no matter the motive.

Putting aside the risk of confrontation with the Syrian military, it will take a somewhat sustained air campaign against IS strongholds in Syria to truly begin to diminish the group’s fortunes. Strikes would have the effect of quarantining IS and limiting its movements, both militarily and economically, since the group won’t be able to operate so openly. This will weaken it against rival groups ranging from the Free Syrian Army to the Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which shows just how complicated the ground situation in Syria is. Air strikes will have to be extremely precise to avoid making matters worse, but that sort of precision is exceedingly difficult without on-the-ground spotters, which invites a whole other batch of complications.

Yet even with all of this—continued air strikes and coordinated campaigns in Iraq and targeted air strikes in Syria—won’t destroy IS, though it will begin to contain them to a needed degree. IS has persisted due to its effective leadership and operations, a compelling narrative to a troubled and disaffected subpopulation, persistent tension and chaos in Iraq, and a sanctuary/training ground/goldmine called Syria. It has exploded this summer into a regional menace and exploited the weakness at the heart of the Iraq-as-nation construct. Something needs to change the dynamic and get the trend lines in a more positive and manageable direction. The situation in Iraq and Syria simply demands increased attention, and while air strikes aren’t the solution, they are part of one.


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