As the U.S. bombed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets in northern Iraq this week, analysts said that U.S. involvement would not slow the Sunni militant group’s steady advance through Syria. Armed with weapons scored in a June offensive on Mosul, ISIS has taken control of swaths of Deir Ezzor and Hassakeh and even reached the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
The U.S. strikes, which have weakened but not stopped ISIS’s advance on Kurdish cities in Iraq, could serve to galvanize the group in eastern Syria, a stronghold that is highly unlikely to come under U.S. attack.
“ISIS is probably going to expand their operations in Syria to take advantage of the fact that there is no air campaign over that country at this time,” says Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based think tank INEGMA.
We asked Karasik and other analysts to discuss the impact of the strikes on ISIS’s Syrian operation.
Noah Bonsey, Senior Syria analyst, International Crisis Group:
The current U.S. air strikes are within a small geographic scope and will have no significant impact on ISIS’s overall capacity. The Pentagon itself acknowledged that yesterday.
In his remarks last Thursday, President Obama identified limited objectives for the use of force he has authorized: to prevent ISIS from advancing further towards Erbil or Baghdad, and to help rescue besieged Yezidi civilians. Those are laudable goals, but do not amount to a serious attempt to reverse ISIS’s recent gains or diminish its potential for additional ones elsewhere.
Halting and eventually reversing ISIS gains requires a broad strategy to strengthen the group’s Sunni opponents within Syria and Iraq. The best opportunity to do so currently exists in Syria, but U.S. policy there remains incoherent, divorced from the urgency of the situation on the ground and from the trans-border nature of the ISIS threat. So long as this is the case, expect ISIS gains to continue on at least one side of the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Theodore Karasik, director of research, INEGMA:
I think what’s important is that the air strikes have whipped up ISIS and are going to force them to make a couple of moves in Syria. The strikes are going to lead them to try and grab more territory. They will use the propaganda of these attacks as a way to invite further confrontation between them and their enemies.
As we know, ISIS’s propaganda is pretty effective in terms of getting messages out, and there are people who do respond. The number of people who respond positively to ISIS propaganda are beginning to expand across the region. The latest ISIS magazine’s content references the launching of U.S. air strikes and is also alerting readers to the fact that this is what ISIS wants – that it wants to engage the U.S. in Kuwait and in other countries where there are American interests.
ISIS is a mercantile state. They are grabbing a variety of assets that they need, and they probably already have enough assets in Syria to do what they need to do. But now in trying to protect some of their bigger military assets from strikes, they may move larger pieces out of Iraq and into the safe haven of Syria.
Faysal Itani, fellow, the Atlantic Council:
What ISIS was doing before U.S. action was taken was trying to consolidate some territorial continuity in northeastern Syria. I don’t see any indication that they’ve shifted that strategy – they continue to concentrate on clearing and governing areas of Raqqa, Hassakeh and Deir Ezzor provinces. The pressure on them in Iraq might compel them to redeploy assets and force from Syria into Iraq.
Strikes against ISIS in Syria don’t seem to be happening. Obama has made it clear this is not an open-ended campaign to defeat ISIS. I think that’s probably true – there’s always the slippery slope argument of unintended escalation – but I don’t see him chasing ISIS into the heart of Nineveh province in Iraq, and then into Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
So far, ISIS has been able to capitalize on the idea that everybody who could constitute a formidable opponent in Syria – the international community, the regime, the opposition – is leaving them alone. They can live with any strategy the U.S. implements in Iraq, as long as it allows them to continue to build their capacity in the areas they have already captured, and allows them to maintain the lines of communication they already have between Syria and Iraq and in their Syrian heartland. As long as they have territorial continuity and clear lines of communications, for now, they are ok.