Valuable considerations for America moving forward in a very volatile region
Syria has been embroiled in internal conflict for years now. The Syrian Civil War has served to destabilize the region such that unregulated and often ideologically fractured rebel groups, like the Islamic State and those who are more moderate, have been able to operate freely.
This has had few of the consequences envisioned by western leaders over the last several years. In part this is because of the unpredictable nature of the rebel groups within Syria. They are united in a common struggle against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. By no means, however, does this make them firm allies.
The militant opposition to Assad’s Alawite (Shi’a) minority government runs the political gambit from totalitarian, unpredictable, and violent groups like the Islamic State to fairly moderate reformist rebel organizations. This is the essence of why a decision to arm the Syrian opposition was fraught with dangerous pitfalls from the beginning.
Geo-politically speaking Syria sits as a pawn in the much larger, global chess game being played by the United States, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, China. Russia has close diplomatic ties with Assad and other members of the oligarchy that controls a significant portion of the Syrian economy (this ruling elite is also largely composed of Assad’s family and others loyal to him). This means that Vladimir Putin and the Russian power structure have a serious and vested interest in the survival of the Assad regime.
It can be predicted, therefore, that the role of the United States in this twisted game is that of the adversary. The US has its own geo-political pawn in the region, that being, of course, Israel. As has been shown repeatedly throughout the past, the state of Israel owes its existence to the continued military support of the United States and other western countries.
Throughout the Cold War Israel was a key friendly state in the region and served to further the ongoing intelligence war between the two global superpowers. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) serve as a more than capable counter force to the Syrian Army. By extension, therefore, one can see that the state of Israel acts as a counter force to the Syrian state.
When opposition to Bashar al-Assad turned militant, intelligence analysts at the Pentagon immediately began licking their lips at the prospect of toppling his minority-controlled regime. The rationale and process seemed simple enough. First the United States and allied nations would send humanitarian and/or (preferably) military aid to the opposition.
Then, theoretically, this would lead to the toppling of the regime and the installation of a friendly government with a shiny, new (also almost implicitly pro-western) constitution. This would, of course, allow a reversal of the current weapons contracts between Syria and Russia, facilitating the arming of a new (once again hypothetical) pro-US and Israeli Syrian state with every shiny gadget imaginable in the western arsenal.
The realities are not so clear-cut. It is relatively murky the extent to which the United States and other western powers have aided various rebel groups fighting within Syria. What is obvious is that the rebels are still armed and still fighting. The Islamic State as an organization poses a serious threat to the stability of many of the state power structures in the Syrian region. These include nations that may, otherwise, oppose one another on the geopolitical stage like Syria, Israel, Turkey, and Iran.
Turkey may prove to be an extremely useful ally to the United States in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. Necessarily the Turkish government under president Erdogan has little to no interest in a disintegration of the Syrian region into an amalgam of semi-autonomous, Muslim, rebel-states. Likewise evidence shows that they are willing to use force to impose stability on the region if necessary.
Turkish tanks lined up at the Syrian border on Tuesday, facing a region currently besieged by Islamic State militants. An Ottoman memorial to Suleyman Shah (1178-1236) located within Syria, which is guarded by 36 Turkish soldiers has also come under threat from the Islamic State.
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a writer, activist, and former major in the Turkish Armed Forces, said of this that “Any attack on Turkish soldiers at Suleyman Shah would trigger a military operation by Turkey […] Turkey would not abandon that memorial site and its territory there because it has symbolic and historical importance for the Turkish people.”
Fighting on Tuesday, which eventually devolved into vicious house to house conflict, yielded control of a Syria-Iraq border crossing to Kurdish militants at the expense of the Islamic State. The Kurds have been fighting a constant battle for survival. Furthermore the fight is now, since the rise of the Islamic State, against a force composed partially of US-manufactured equipment. One Kurdish fighter even remarked that “[the Islamic State is] fighting with weapons the Iraqi military abandoned — so, American weapons really.”
A coalition of nations has begun conducting airstrikes within Syrian airspace. Rear Admiral John Kirby stated that the military coalition, composed of the US and its partners, had conducted 20 strikes on mobile and fixed targets. “No one should be lulled into a false sense of security by accurate airstrikes,” he said, “We will not, we cannot bomb them into obscurity.”
Syrian opposition activist, Mohammed Ghanem, stated of the airstrikes: “We are deeply troubled by the scope of the campaign […] hitting deep inside rebel territory without prior cooodination or discussion with armed opposition or civilian opposition is frankly causing considerable harm to the purpose of this mission.”
To date, according to Kirby, 306 total strikes have been conducted. Furthermore a significant portion of these strikes have occurred in Iraq (as the Syrian air campaign is fairly new). The fact that these strikes are now being carried out by a coalition of nations indicates that others may, with time, join the struggle against the Islamic State. Another valuable consideration is that of cooperation between the United States and allied partners with Bashar al-Assad in the interests of an efficient and well-coordinated struggle against the Islamic State. The Syrian military has not, as of yet, protested, to any significant level, against the US-led strikes.
A few questions remain, however. Will an air campaign suffice for the annihilation of the Islamic State and its associated power structures? Furthermore, how willing would a coalition of nations be to place ground troops in the region to combat the Islamic State? Finally, one must ask whether or not the actions of western nations in the past two decades have served to, in part, create the monster which they face now in the Islamic State.