September 24, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Crossing the Rubicon: Coalition Airstrikes in Syria

• While airstrikes are only a tactical military move, the maneuvering to cobble together a coalition of actors should be acknowledged as a strategic diplomatic win

• Airstrikes won’t be the sole answer to the years-long descent into chaos in both Syria and Iraq, but having Arab governments go on the record—visibly fighting—against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria indicates a meaningful shift in regional dynamics that is needed for any long-term resolution

• The scale of airstrikes against IS (and al-Qaeda central’s Khurasan group) suggests that the coming stage will go further than keeping the extremists off-balance, but rather, if sustained, attempt to clear the battlefield for the soon-to-be trained and equipped “approved” rebels

• The airstrikes might be part of a larger regional shift, in which rival countries actually focus on a common threat; the Saudi/Iranian response to the al-Houthi rebellion and significant advances in Yemen bolsters this argument

• Undoubtedly IS suffered setbacks in the initial airstrikes; it will likely seek to blend into civilian populations to frustrate further strikes but it will diminish the group’s ability to move and amass supplies, and to continue the fiction of being a ruling power.

The so-called Islamic State (IS) was on the receiving end of unprecedented US/Arab coalition airstrikes that laid bare the stark difference between social media propaganda calling for such a fight and actually experiencing one. While the results of the initial airstrikes shouldn't be proclaimed as a strategic defeat for a group a decade in the making, neither should the action be dismissed as a publicity stunt that changes nothing. In fact, IS (and the Qaeda central external element in Syria tagged as the Khurasan group) suffered real losses that blunt its ability to project power. This is important in both the tactical and strategic sense: eliminating near-term threats to the region and beyond is hardly an incidental matter, and giving breathing space to the new Iraqi government has long-term value.

But more devastating to IS and other extremist groups than the airstrikes themselves was who openly participated in them. Arab governments have long played a two-step domestic/foreign policy dance when it came to cooperating with countering violent extremist groups in the region. This was, in some ways, understandable, but did little to reverse the tide of extremism. However, for Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain to openly participate in US-led military action against violent extremist salafi-takfiri groups inside another Arab country is remarkable in itself. It suggests, if only for the near-term, that the last several years of using the Syria-Iraq conflict as a proxy against neighbors and Iran may have crested.

The state-run media in the region have varied between the neutral and the mildly skeptical (actually less so than that of some European countries), which suggests the governments have weighed the costs of acting in concert with the West against IS in Syria with the costs of not, and found the most profitable course is in action. Much as with the Israeli-Hamas conflict this summer, it appears as if many of the regional Arab governments have decided to bridge their domestic/foreign divide and openly move against the extremists. Whether this can be sustained and increased will determine in large part the overall success of the push to diminish IS.

An indication of perhaps a true shift in stopping the sectarian/ideological proxy warfare can be found not just in the airstrikes but in seemingly far away San’a, Yemen, where an Iran-supported group, the Houthi/Zaydis, effectively took control of the capital. Normally, Saudi Arabia would be up in arms against this perceived Shi’a expansion, but instead, the foreign ministers of both countries met in New York this week and pledged to cooperate more in the coming months. Though still unclear, this suggests that Riyadh will tolerate a Shi’a buffer zone between the Kingdom and the Sunni extremists of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to the south—an indication of just how serious the Saudis have come to view the threat of expanding extremism.

Again, it is important to understand that these initial air strikes are just that, initial air strikes, and that it has taken a decade for conditions to deteriorate to the point that IS has become a real force in the region. It will take years to reverse the trend lines that have been moving towards chaos. But the unprecedented public coalition of Arab governments moving against a religious extremist group in another country is an undeniable diplomatic success for Washington. That this initial multi-lateral move in a long and complicated campaign isn’t in itself the final victory doesn’t mean it’s a failure; it’s merely a successful start.


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