Thursday 26 April 2018

Could the US wave of attacks on Syria be the boost that disgraced President Assad has prayed for?

Syrian President Bashar Assad. Photo: AP Photo
Syrian President Bashar Assad. Photo: AP Photo
A still image taken from video provided by the US Central Command shows a damaged building at an Islamic State (IS) compound near the northern Syrian town of Ar Raqqah, following an air strike. Reuters
Residents look at buildings which were damaged in what activists say was one of Tuesday's US air strikes in Kfredrian, Idlib province. Reuters
Boys inspect a vehicle which was damaged in what activists say was one of Tuesday's US air strikes in Kfredrian, Idlib province. Reuters
Syrian refugees enter Turkey at Yumurtalik crossing gate near Suruc, Turkey. AP Photo
Turkish aid workers give water to Syrian refugees waiting for permission to enter Turkey at Yumurtalik crossing gate near Suruc, Turkey. AP Photo
A formation of US Navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq. Reuters

Shashank Joshi

For Syria's opposition, there is a cruel irony in the fact that, just over one year after the cancellation of planned missiles strikes to punish Assad's chemical weapon use, American and Arab warplanes and missiles are finally in Syria's skies.

This time, of course, the target is not the regime itself, but the de facto capital of Isil in the city of Raqqa, eastern Syria (the subject of a fine Vice documentary a few months ago). But will Assad be cheering on the assault on his enemies, and in the absence of a ground force to step in, will the regime benefit? And what is the longer-term implication of these strikes?

First, we should recognise that the Obama administration has pulled an impressive coalition out of the hat. Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are all reported to have taken part in the strikes. The absence of Nato-ally and regional heavyweight Turkey is extremely disappointing, though it is entirely possible that Ankara will join in after PM Erdogan meets with Obama at the UN General Assembly this week.

Given that these Arab nations have all been, literally, violently opposed to the Iran-backed Assad regime and have long supported Syria's rebels, their participation is symbolically crucial, particularly given that there is no UN Resolution to authorise this extension of the war across borders. Securing a prominent, high-level Arab role is a major diplomatic success, although the delay has likely come at some military cost.

Second, the US was fully aware that striking Isil without striking the regime would potentially boost Assad - this is precisely what these Arab allies had been telling Washington, and it is why they had been so sceptical of air strikes in the first place. The US can point to three reasons why this may be less of a problem than assumed:

(1) The Assad regime simply isn't that strong around Raqqa, particularly after the fall of al-Tabqa Airfield to the west of the city late last month. It isn't in a position to march in with tens of thousands of troops.

(2) It appears that the US is also targeting other jihadist groups that may be in a position to take advantage. Some reports suggest that a particular cell of Al Qa'ieda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra - now a rival of Isil - was also struck on Tuesday. This would be a significant broadening of the campaign, but it indicates that the US will have an eye on who seeks to fill any vacuums left behind by Isil, although it will still go down badly with much of the Syrian opposition, who see Al-Nusra and others as legitimate allies.

(3) , The US has committed to training 5,000 Syrian rebels on Saudi Arabian soil over the next several months - and it is likely that the US and its allies have also been liaising with Syrian rebel groups on the ground around Raqqa, helping them to exploit air strikes. US or Arab special forces might even be on the ground, giving them a hand. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that the regime will try to take advantage - and the US is highly unlikely to widen its campaign if Assad does so.

Third, while Isil is vulnerable to these strikes in Raqqa, where it has built up visible and exposed infrastructure over more than a year of occupation, the fundamental challenge remains that of fighting a predominantly aerial war with a light footprint.

In Iraq, US forces have been able to rely on the Kurdish militias, the peshmerga, to exploit air strikes and roll back Isil. They hope they can repeat this with Iraqi security forces in due course, and perhaps also with Sunni tribes. But the Syrian rebels are viewed as simply too small in number, too weak, and too unreliable in their loyalties to replicate this role.

What this means is that Isil might be severely weakened around urban areas, and it might even face the destruction of strategic assets like its lucrative oilfields, but it could nevertheless remain entrenched within cities. The point to remember is that this wave of strikes is intended to weaken Isil, ensuring that it faces a pincer movement from both Syria and Iraq, but not to destroy it.

Fourth, and finally, it appears that the US decided to strike at Isil without first obliterating the air defences of the Assad regime. President Obama had hinted at this last week, when he confided in a select group of American columnists:

He contemplated the possibility that Mr. Assad might order his forces to fire at American planes entering Syrian airspace.

If he dared to do that, Mr. Obama said he would order American forces to wipe out Syria's air defence system, which he noted would be easier than striking Isil, because its locations are better known. He went on to say that such an action by Mr. Assad would lead to his overthrow, according to one account.

There is, therefore, an implicit bargain between Obama and Assad. Assad stands down his defences, and he gets to survive. Obama is likely relieved he has had no need to "wipe out" this system, because it included Russian advisers and operators, and US bombs falling on Russian military personnel would probably go down badly in Moscow. But if this campaign stretches on for weeks or months, might Assad find it necessary to mount, at least, some symbolic resistance? The fact that Israel has shot down a Syrian fighter jet - the first such interception since 1989 - suggests that the regime may be getting edgy. (©Daily Telegraph London)

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