In expanding its airstrikes into Syria against Islamic State extremists, the U.S. could find itself entangled in a morass of jihadis, rebel rivalries and religious hatred.
Unlike Iraq, the U.S. has no firm allies inside Syria to take over areas if fighters from the Islamic State group are pushed back. Unless the West decisively backs the outgunned moderate rebels, it risks the unintended consequence of prolonging the widely discredited rule of President Bashar Assad.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday that in the fight against the Islamic State group, the U.S. “cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people — a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost.”
“Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all,” Obama said, referring to the Islamic State group by one of its acronyms.
But it’s a lot more complicated.
Northern and eastern Syria, where the Islamic State group controls territory and where the U.S. is likely to strike, is a landscape shattered by three years of war and rife with conflicting loyalties and rivalries.
Assad is supported by members of his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as well as some Christians and other minorities. The Islamic State group and other rebel factions are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, Syria’s majorly sect.
The Islamic State group controls territory stretching from the outskirts of the northern city of Aleppo to the eastern border with Iraq — roughly one-third of Syria.
Initial U.S. airstrikes are likely to focus on Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the group’s proto-state along the Euphrates River, but the group has strongholds in northern Syria, including the towns of Manbej and al-Bab. Only few kilometers (miles) separate these towns from front lines occupied by rival rebels. Assad’s forces, beaten back from all their bases in Raqqa province, are still holed up in a major air base in the eastern Deir el-Zour province.
The Crossroads of Special Operations