In the past few weeks, air strikes by US forces have been targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq, also known by its Arabic acronym “Daesh”. But on September 23, the US, together with its leading Arab allies, announced that they had started bombing other militant armed groups in Syria as well.
This is a clear indication that the Syrian conflict has entered a new phase, a moment pregnant with risks and opportunities. The deepening US involvement in Syria will likely outlast President Barack Obama’s second presidential term. There is no turning back.
The new US engagement, together with its key Arab partners, among them Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Jordan, represents a marked departure from the Obama administration’s previous reluctance to get entangled in Syria’s killing fields in the first place. Obama may have fired the first shot, but his successor will have to see the campaign through, as this strategy will not yield results for at least a few years – if ever. Without doubt, the air strikes will devolve into something much bigger over time.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sitting in Damascus, has just cause to be anxious. And not because the US and his bitter regional foes have pooled their resources together to bomb his enemies on his own territory.
The end-goal of this particular coalition is to degrade, weaken and deny ISIL shelter inside Syria and limit its capacity to manoeuvre its fighters between Iraq and Syria. But the US bombings have now expanded to target two key al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups – the Khorasan faction and the al-Nusra Front, the official arm of al-Qaeda Central. As such, there is every reason to believe that this new coalition ultimately aims to exert pressure on not only ISIL, al-Nusra Front and other militants but also on the Assad regime itself.
Long term objective
The long term objective would be to tilt the balance of power inside Syria and give Assad little choice but to accept a transitional government in which the opposition plays a significant role.
There is every reason to believe that this new coalition ultimately aims to exert pressure not only ISIL, al-Nusra Front and other militants but also on the Assad regime itself.
The US campaign has two goals in Syria; the first is to degrade and squeeze ISIL and paralyse it. The second goal is to strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition in order to create the conditions for a negotiated political settlement. In order to reach a diplomatic solution, attacks against extremist groups are being carried out alongside a campaign to train and arm factions that make up this moderate Syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and build them into a skilled fighting force capable of challenging Assad’s rule.
Right now, few would dispute that Assad holds more cards than his rivals. By degrading ISIL and other extremist groups, it is hoped that the FSA will gain the upper hand and be able to fill the ensuing vacuum within the space of a year or two, preparing the ground for a negotiated settlement. But this is a long and uncertain shot. It would be naive to expect Assad and his allies, including Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, to simply sit around and wait for the FSA to gain the upper hand on the battlefield.
Although the air strikes mark the beginning of sustained US involvement in Syria, backed up by a coalition of European and Arab allies, serious questions regarding the efficacy of the US-led strategy remain.
Reports have surfaced already detailing ISIL’s redeployment of forces into urban areas and declaring its intention to wage guerrilla warfare. Ground forces will have to be deployed to dislodge ISIL from cities and towns which it controls across Iraq and Syria, a formidable mission. But the Obama administration has made it clear it will not send ground troops to Syria and Iraq. Neither are regional powers willing to do so in light of the opposition by the Iraqi and Syrian governments, not to mention Iran and Russia.
We also know that the FSA will not be in a position to take on ISIL in one or two years. At the moment the FSA has at most 5,000 active fighters, according to its former chief of staff, General Salim Idris, in contrast to ISIL’s 30,000 skilled, fanatical, and motivated strongmen.
Bottom-up approach needed
The odds are stacked against the US-led coalition. As the US and its allies know very well, ISIL and other militant actors inside Syria and Iraq cannot be defeated by airpower regardless of how lethal and potent air strikes are; rather, they must be denied the social oxygen and social base that sustain and nourish their existence. In particular, the flames burning from the sectarian fire in Syria and Iraq must be put out.
|Inside Story – Syria strikes: Expanding the war on ISIL|
A bottom-up approach must complement the top-down strategy pursued by the US and its allies. This involves working with local communities in Iraq and Syria, particularly the Sunnis who feel persecuted and excluded from the political and social space, and giving them a stake in the future in order to have them turn against ISIL and other extremists. Again, this is easier said than done.
The greater and more urgent task is to help rebuild fragile state institutions in the region and improve dismal socio-economic conditions which provide a fertile soil for nihilistic groups like ISIL.
Another pre-condition is to end the regional war-by-proxy between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran which inflames sectarian tensions and supplies nourishment for ISIL. A grand bargain is needed whereby Iran and Russia are engaged and brought into this coalition. The prospects of this grand bargain are minimal.
Among so many unknown variables, ISIL will not simply wait passively. The group is adapting to new challenges, demonstrating tactical adjustments as well as consolidating control over major cities and provinces. It now governs over the lives of eight million Iraqis and Syrians. In a way, it has eight million hostages, a potentially frightening calamity.
Fawaz A Gerges holds the Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of several books, including “The New Middle East: Social Protest and Revolution in the Arab World.”