August 27, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: US Airstrikes in Syria: Complications & Outcomes

• The authorization of US surveillance flights over Syria, which is in itself a complicated order, given Syrian air defense capabilities, is a sign that the US is seriously considering airstrikes in the country

• However necessary these strikes might be to pressure the so-called Islamic State (IS) in its Syria sanctuary in order to relieve pressure in Iraq, they are complicated by intense local and geopolitical dynamics

• The ground conflict in Syria is more fraught than any in the world, with local, regional, and international players seeking advantage in a shifting environment; it is impossible to predict the ripple effect of airstrikes

• Just in the areas around Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is fighting alongside the Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and other groups, against the Syrian army, while IS is ramping up for a fight with al-Nusra and the Syrian army; airstrikes against this intertwined chaos will likely not be as surgical as intended.

With the authorization of surveillance flights—manned and unmanned—over Syria to better assess the current tactical situation of the extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS), the US has taken a necessary, if complicated, step towards possible airstrikes in Syria. The situation with IS advancing and solidifying gains in Iraq is dire enough that airstrikes against IS in its sanctuary in Syria are indeed needed for short-term relief. However, it is nearly impossible to overstate the complexity of such a decision, given that Syria is the most complicated and dynamic conflict on earth.

The tactical decision to attempt to meaningfully diminish IS by hitting it in Syria is fraught with strategic considerations. That the Assad regime would understandably oppose unilateral US military action in its country proved correct with the subsequent statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu’alim warning against such a move (and Russia’s support of that position). Syrian air defenses will pose a challenge to unmanned surveillance flights and to any follow-on airstrikes. But the military challenges, while considerable, are actually secondary to the local and geopolitical results of air strikes.

The US position concerning the civil war in Syria is that the Assad regime lacks legitimacy and needs to go, a position held by the majority of the international community, save for Russia, China, and Iran. The US therefore has no interest in helping the Assad regime, yet airstrikes might do just that as IS and Assad are fighting fiercely. Indeed, IS has turned out to be the biggest military threat to Assad, with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army proving to be ineffective. The other rebel groups are more effective but can in no way be described as moderate, including the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist Sunni groups. FSA fights with these groups against Assad because it can’t do it alone, which certainly complicates the notion of an acceptable opposition to Assad. Airstrikes against IS might benefit actors only slightly better than IS, assuming they work as intended.

Again, the necessity of near-term airstrikes in Syria, to prevent further collapse of Iraq, might outweigh the potential of helping Assad and rival extremist groups. To be effective, airstrikes will have to be very targeted, and that requires real-time intelligence and on-the-ground spotters. It is unclear if FSA assets can serve in that function, especially since they are intermixed with groups such as al-Nusra who are completely anathema to US goals. Without eyes on the ground, airstrikes might prove to be too inaccurate, and therefore prove to be counterproductive. In some areas, such as the IS stronghold of Raqqa and Dir al-Zur, IS is somewhat easy to target as it is  the dominant military force. But in other areas, where IS is currently advancing, such as in Aleppo and Marea, there are shifting lines and actors, meaning airstrikes will need to be more targeted and less substantial. On top of this, the need to avoid civilian casualties is paramount.

Pulling back from the local to the geopolitical arena, the situation remains just as complicated. Russia, however hypocritically given its actions in Ukraine, will strongly object to US intervention in Syria. Without a UN resolution, the US will likely assert preemption of an expanding threat as justification, which has merit given how obvious the threat is and how the Syrian regime is unable to contain the threat within its borders. Still, the move will be controversial among the very partners that will need to come together eventually for true resolution to the Syria/Iraq crisis. Airstrikes, however successful against IS, will prove to be a pyrrhic victory if the situations that helped the group achieve its current levels of power—the chaos in Syria and the political dysfunction in Iraq—aren’t finally addressed.


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