So while I was out, we learned considerably more about America’s new air campaign in Syria, and while some of it might be OK, most of it just serves to demonstrate what an unworkable mess the Syrian conflict is, and why, regardless of our intentions, it’s probably counter-productive for America to be involved there in any way.
For one thing, any action we take against Daesh in Syria is inevitably going to benefit one of the other factions in the civil war, which at this point means either Assad or Nusra, the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate. I say this despite our long-discussed-but-never-actualized plans to bolster (if by “bolster” you mean “basically create from nothing”) a “moderate” Syrian opposition, which was pretty absurd when we first started talking about it 3 years ago and is utterly ridiculous now. Look, this rebellion is a Sunni-driven effort, to the extent that the vast majority of Syria’s religious minorities (Alawites, Christians, Druze) have been supporting Assad, but the thing is, a lot of secular-minded Sunnis (the kind we would naturally think of as “moderate”) are also supporting Assad. That’s not to say that there are no religious/political moderates among the rebel factions, but there have never been that many. And however many there were when the war started, there are surely far fewer today, as Assad has tried to eliminate as many of them as he could, while mostly leaving Nusra and Daesh alone or even cultivating their growth, in order to pit the extremists against the moderates and to present the civil war to the international community as a “me vs. the terrorists” fight.
So the only viable fighters in Syria right now are either with the regime or one of the two extremist groups, and so if we degrade one of those extremists groups it will naturally boost the fortunes of the other extremist group and/or the regime. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross expects that significant US airstrikes against Daesh will cause the group to hemorrhage supporters, and argues that Al Qaeda has positioned itself to pick up many of them: Nusra by trying to work with Daesh fighters directly and other AQ factions by calling for an end to jihadi infighting and a refocusing on common enemies (Israel, the West, Shiʿa). For Assad, meanwhile, the benefit of American strikes on Daesh, which has probably outlived or is close to outliving its usefulness to him and is actually becoming a real threat, is obvious. For proof that we’re helping Assad whether we want to or not, you need look no farther than his willingness to allow foreign air forces to bomb his country’s territory without challenging them in any way, going so far as to say that he supports “any international anti-terrorism effort.” Of course he does.
But wait! We’re not just striking Daesh! Reportedly we spent part of our time in the first round of airstrikes hitting targets associated with Nusra, specifically something called the Khorasan Group (which appears to be our name for it), which US officials just started talking about this weekend. I’ll have more to say about them later, but Khorasan is, we’re told, a small group of high-level Al Qaeda veterans, from the network’s Af-Pak homeland, that have gone to Syria to assist Nusra and particularly to cultivate all these foreign fighters that keep moving into the region so as to eventually get them to strike at targets back home in Europe and the US. It’s possible that the group was formed as part of that overall AQ plan to pick up fighters that Daesh would inevitably lose, though it’s also entirely possible that Washington hyped this group and the imminence of its threat to the US in order to add “self-defense” to our otherwise legally dubious justification for extending the anti-Daesh bombing campaign into Syria.
Whatever the rationale, we struck at Al Qaeda as well as Daesh, and in response…the rest of the Syrian rebels are pissed at us. Nusra, see, usually collaborates with other rebel groups, unlike Daesh who have spent far more time fighting other rebels than they have spent fighting Assad. So the other rebel factions, such as they are, and including whatever “moderates” we’re hoping to turn into a legitimate army at some indeterminate point in the future, actually like Nusra. They probably don’t know about Khorasan, or any Nusra plans to strike European and American targets, and even if they did, why would that matter to them? All that matters to them is that we hit an ally of theirs. These other rebel factions aren’t even particularly thrilled about our strikes on Daesh, even though Daesh has been openly fighting them for a while now. For the rebels, the real enemy is the guy who’s been barrel-bombing their cities and their families, and there’s no comparison between Assad and Daesh or anybody else on that score.
Imagine what these guys are going to do if we ever actually get around to arming them. Think they’re going to use those weapons against Daesh or Nusra, as we’ll want them to? This seems highly unlikely. They’ll go after their main enemy, Assad, and may even “lose” some of our arms to Nusra to the extent that doing so serves their overall tactical needs. We can try to make aid contingent on fighting the battles we want them to fight, but once we commit to overtly aiding the rebels it’s going to be hard to stop no matter what they do.
This is what makes Syria such a problem for America, and probably ensures that we’re putting ourselves in a no-win situation by intervening there. None of our regional allies are actually pulling in the same direction as we are. The “moderate” Syrian rebels are at war with Assad, not Daesh and certainly not Nusra. The Saudis may finally fear Daesh enough to want to do something about them (or at least to stop sending them aid), but their real goal in Syria is to get Assad out of there and thereby blunt Iranian influence in the region; anything else is secondary. Turkey has been so hell-bent on seeing Assad toppled, and so afraid of what Daesh might do to them or to the Turkish nationals who Daesh took hostage in Iraq (who were just released in exchange for the release of dozens of captured Daesh fighters), that they’ve been allowing all those foreign fighters to pour over their border and go join Daesh.
Meanwhile,the goals of our ostensible enemies, Iran and Assad, are almost perfectly aligned with ours (at least in the short-term) with respect to Daesh and Nusra (though Iran’s relationship with Al Qaeda is more complicated than its feelings about Daesh). Yet even that’s actually a serious problem for us, because if we’re seen to be working on Iran’s behalf (or Assad’s; they’re indistinguishable in this case) or in collusion with them it could completely wreck efforts to undermine the extremist groups’ support among Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis. If that comes to pass, it will just make the effort to eradicate groups like Daesh and Nusra even harder.
If your head is spinning, I’m right there with you. Syria is a problem that America probably can’t solve, but we’re getting involved there anyway. That should worry people.