On Wednesday, President Obama said the U.S. would strike ISIS targets in Syria, a widening of his military action against the group in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In the buildup to the announcement, the administration had been concerned that strikes on ISIS would be misinterpreted as signifying that they were collaborating with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
We asked Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Steven Heydemann, vice president for applied research on conflict at the U.S. Institute of Peace, for their analysis on a potential strike and its impact on the Assad government.
Joshua Landis: Clearly anticipation of the U.S. intervention has spooked people – Obama has rejected partnering with the regime and is going to give more money to the rebels. We don’t know yet how seriously he’s going to take these rebels, and if he’s really going to try to help the rebels take over this giant swath of territory from the outskirts of Aleppo to the Iraqi border.
There’s a tremendous amount of jockeying going on among various militias. Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest militia in Aleppo, saw its leadership decimated in an explosion. We’re not sure if it was carried out by ISIS or the regime. The new head is a jihadist who fought in Iraq, and led jihadists into Iraq to fight Americans, which means that the U.S. now cannot partner with the Islamic Front. Nusra, from what people are saying, is in terrible distress and has been losing money and men over the last few months as ISIS has grown. The leadership is despondent.
We don’t know what will emerge – and whether ISIS will use this new struggle against the U.S. as a rallying cry. We have been seen the moderate militias hungry for U.S. funds lining up to make pro “let’s fight ISIS” statements. The jockeying extends to the regime and these militias. Who is going to be able to get to places like Deir Ezzor or towns north of Aleppo, where ISIS has begun to take over with an end goal of dominating the supply lines into Aleppo? And if ISIS does, will the IF or Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups like the Syrian Revolutionaries Front – which has positioned itself to snatch some of these towns along the Turkish border – rise to the occasion?
That’s why the regime has really been going after these militias. No one wants to waste their energy on ISIS. It’s the FSA against the regime right now – they are both trying to block each other from jumping into ISIS positions that could come free should the U.S. degrade or destroy ISIS. So on everyone’s part, there’s a scramble going on to reposition.
Steven Heydemann: We’ve had statements from senior regime officials that they’re fully prepared to cooperate in a campaign intended to degrade and destroy ISIS, and they’re open to conversations with us to advance that purpose. The position they are taking is – and it’s consistent with views expressed for some time – they are a natural partner for the U.S. in anti-terror activity and the U.S. should be reaching out to the regime in order to coordinate anti-terror efforts directed at ISIS. And the U.S. has rejected that role for the Assad regime.
Obama clearly established in his speech that the idea that they would work with Assad in confronting ISIS is finished. But that has now led to the Russians expressing a view that if the U.S. launches attacks without U.N. authorization, it would be seen as aggression. So Russia is trying to add additional pressure to the U.S. to direct anti-ISIS efforts to the Assad regime.
My own view is when the U.S. does launch the strikes, neither the regime nor Russia are going to do much about it, and it would be very surprising if Russia were to take serious action and if the Assad regime were to do anything that would lead to some kind of confrontation with the U.S.
My sense is that we’re seeing posturing along the lines we would expect. But I also look at the situation now and don’t see it as one in which either Russia or the Assad regime have a strong incentive to escalate further once the U.S. does begin military activity in Syria.