After three years of brutal fighting the peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria is still far from sight. The Syrian government has gained momentum in the past months, scoring victories against the US-backed rebel forces, and has slowly but steadily increased its holding over Syrian territory. Even the western analysts are slowly accepting the fact that Assad has largely turned the tables on the moderate rebels whose growing internal divisions and lack of additional foreign assistance has left them vulnerable against the better organized government forces. The policy of supporting the moderate rebels against the Syrian leadership with the main goal to oust Bashar Al-Assad from office, has all but failed.
In the turmoil and chaos of the conflict a radical, extremist faction calling itself ‘Islamic State’ has risen from the flames of war and has in short time managed to establish itself as one of the best organized and brutal, if not the most numerous, terrorist groups in recent history. The idea that by fighting a proxy war against the Syrian government by arming the rebels in order to topple the regime has backfired and IS now threatens not only Syria, but the entire region as well. In words of US defense minister Hagel, ‘they are beyond anything we’ve seen so far’ – and indeed we haven’t, seeing that ISIS not only decisively defeated the Iraqi military which cost the US taxpayers billions of dollars to train and equip, but has also managed to scare literally every single state in the region into re-thinking their approach to the civil war in Syria.
Seeing that US and Syrian military forces are both currently engaging the same enemy at the moment, isn’t it the time for the US to change its policy towards the Syrian government?
Having in mind that both Syrian and US militaries are currently engaging the Islamic State on two fronts simultaneously, making them de facto allies, the optimal foreign policy should acknowledge the complicated and changed situation in the field and opt for cooperation between all of the enemies of the Islamic State. In other words, the US government should cease its support for the rebels in Syria – seeing that enormous quantities of these weapons end up in extremists’ hands – and start cooperating with the Syrian government and other fighting forces such as Iraqi military and Kurdish forces in a joint offensive against Islamic State.
Firstly, Islamic State cannot be defeated without effective military operations on the ground in the Syrian theatre – which only Syrian army is capable of conducting effectively, and secondly, US unilateral actions against IS would only yield short-term tactical benefits with minimal strategic benefits and would create further regional instability in the region in the long term,
The US military command is well-aware that fighting IS will require extended military actions both in Syria and Iraq simultaneously. Seeing that Syria is the stronghold of the IS’s activity in the region, most of the fighting would have to be done there. To combat a mobile, well trained and experienced force one needs troops on the ground, as air strikes can only do so much and are by no means a ‘silver-bullet’ to end all the problems. The only military force in the region that is capable of a prolonged and effective military campaign against the terrorists is the Syrian army. Other fighting forces in the region, while potentially useful, cannot defeat ISIS without the active involvement of the Syrian army – even with US help.
As we’ve seen in June this year, Iraqi army was routed in mere weeks of fighting IS, the Kurdish forces have barely managed to defend themselves against the extremists’ assault and would have suffered high casualties had it not been for the US air strikes, and finally the moderate rebels inside Syria are growlingly disorganized and did not manage to launch a proper assault in months.
To put it simply, to defeat IS in Syria, the US will need to accept the fact that it is only doable in cooperation with the Syrian army. Failure to accept this would seriously hamper the efforts in containing IS and will create more space for the radicals to increase their power in Syria.
Secondly, if the US does not opt to cooperate with the Syrian government and decides for unilateral action it would yield no benefits and would create disastrous consequences. It goes without saying that such strikes would be contrary to the international law, but more worryingly, we do not have to look back far in the past to see what kind of ‘results’ unilateral strikes bring. The disastrous effects of unilateral action in Libya and Iraq are common knowledge and it’s not hard to see that similar outcome would follow in Syria. It’s quite clear that such unilateral strikes could also be used to strike Syrian military targets under pretext of fighting IS in a last attempt to salvage a clearly failed policy of toppling the government with violence. The effect of such policy would not be the defeat of IS but strengthening of it, seeing that the only force currently fighting IS with full force in Syria is the Syrian military.
Even if the US would only focus on unilateral strikes against IS, the yields of such strikes would be only short-termed and strategically would not matter much – IS is a highly mobile and adaptable force which can only be defeated with ‘boots on the ground’ – something that US is simply not able to provide for political reasons.
With all above said it’s clear that current policy of supporting the rebels has resulted in a backlash that made the emergence of Islamic State possible. The US can continue on the path of that failed policy and deepen the crisis or they can try to find a new path, one that would involve all the parties engaged in fighting the Islamic State.
Editor’s note: This article was written prior to the first US strikes against ISIS in Syria on 23/09.
Image Source: US Army