Inside an intriguing yet familiar process, the U.S. is quietly arriving in Syria. How much, where, when, and what remains to be seen. However, as recent media coverage demonstrates, in the era of commercial overhead imagery there is no way to conceal a buildup—or for that matter an airfield. Be that airfield in the South China Sea or the Hassakah province of northeastern Syria.
Meanwhile in neighboring Iraq, the US continues to incrementally increase its special operations forces. The indicators on both sides of the status quo ante Syria-Iraq border point to a growing U.S. and anti-IS Coalition presence in the air…and on the ground. That growing presence, less intermittent and more pervasive, presages other changes in eastern Syria that will translate into effects upon Syria writ large. Absent any specifics of the still gestating, closehold U.S. DoD/Coalition anti-IS strategy, several important conclusions can be inferred as to consequences of that strategy’s operations once it is uncased and unfurled.
Whatever its eventual scope and magnitude, we know for certain that the anti-IS Coalition’s existence is publicly supported by the Russians but—and here is a key caveat, the Coalition’s tactical operations will not be enabled or supported by Russia. As Assad’s guarantor, the Russians will seek to delegitimize Coalition operations. In fact, a Russian/Syrian disinformation campaign exists now that alleges U.S.
bombing destruction shelling of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Syria’s Idlib province earlier this week. The Russians and Syrians are leveraging each’s methods that allows the Russians to silence accountability (when Russians work best) for their aerial bombing attacks on all sites that might indirectly aid rebel forces opposing the regime. The presence of American air forces over Syria merely gives the Russians and Syrians something to point at. Sadly, this is just the beginning of a longer, larger Russian/Syrian counter-information and strategic messaging campaign to undercut the anti-IS Coalition and split off individual member nations.
Next, we can say generally categorically that anti-IS Coalition operations bring western and other Arab eyes and ears into Syria and thus pose multiple problems for the Assad regime. The near constant presence of the Coalition—an unwelcome expeditionary force on the territory of a formerly sovereign Syria is what it will take to militarily crush the IS, but every day those forces are within Syria is an affront to Assad’s strength. And, as is often the metric in Arab societies, the inability to expel any hostile force or anyone from one’s country is proof of a leader’s impotence and by extension, illegitimacy. So, despite the fact that in strategic terms, the anti-IS Coalition is doing for Assad and Syrians everywhere what they cannot do for themselves, Assad has been and will remain utterly opposed to their presence. Their presence is a daily reminder that within the status quo ante political borders of Syria, there is an organized military force far more potent than what the Russians or Assad’s forces can deter or defeat. What are Assad’s fears made of? Regime change via use of military force. Dictators, it turns out, read history books.
Granted, forced regime change is not a stated objective of the anti-IS Coalition…yet. But nearly every member or would-be member of that coalition agrees that for Syria to heal, Assad must go. Assad’s fear is that when Raqaa and the other IS strongholds in eastern Syria are rolled up, the anti-IS Coalition may turn its gaze westward toward Damascus. Such are the phobias and anxieties that inhabit Assad’s psyche. Dictators see plots within plots. After all, plot building is a core dictator strength competency.
But here is the interesting part…
When the anti-IS Coalition’s operations reach maturity—at some point later this year, its gross effect will be a pseudo partitioning of Syria, a another sort of fracture in a failed state already ruptured and splintered. The byproduct—intended or unintentional (which does not matter at this juncture) of the Coalition’s strategic plan will be to split Syria into two halves spheres. There will be a western Syria sphere that incorporates the seat of the Assad regime, the short reach of its power, and locations synonymous with Russian interests. Alternatively, there will be an eastern sphere that takes in current IS territories.
This is hardly the practical outcome Mr. Putin likely intended to deliver to Mr. Assad, nor is this a helpful development for Assad’s attempts to rebuild the reach of his regime and his power. As the two alliances—the Assad/Russia/Iran trifecta and the multi-nation U.S. led coalition pursue their separate agendas of goals and objectives in Syria, a new internal border—a seam will take shape. This informal, undeclared seam will demarcate two new eastern and western pseudo-spheres along a more or less north-south line that originates where the Euphrates River enters Syria to Palmyra to where Jordan’s northeastern point meets Syria’s southern border.
For fear of bringing a strong military counter-response that it could not survive, the Assad regime and its military will not seek direct confrontation with any U.S. or Coalition forces on the ground in eastern Syria. Instead, the more plausible scenarios are Hezbollah, Iranian proxies, Al Qua’ida, IS, or Russian backed proxies harassing or clashing with U.S./Coalition forces. AQ and the IS have much to gain from direct confrontations with Coalition forces. However, Iran and Russia will follow an established script; they will not clash directly with Coalition forces for Mr. Assad’s sake. Why? An direct confrontation is an exposure of their actual opposition of the anti-IS Coalition. Second, while Iranian and Russian expeditionary power in Syria is impressive, both would be speed bumps for a full-throated U.S. military counter-response. The third flows from the second in that any thumping by U.S. forces will temporarily boost public opinion at home but endanger Iranian and/or Russian staying power in Syria by imposing costs that neither the Iranians or the Russians want to bear at this time.
You say that the Russians and Iranians might have a few things to say about the notion of a pseudo-partition and Coalition kinetic efforts in the east of Syria? I say you are likely right; but their complaints about it likely will not matter. The IS’s murderous record in the Arab Homelands, Europe, and elsewhere make moot to the point of ridiculousness any Iranian or Russian complaints against a Coalition whose stated purpose is to drive the IS into oblivion. The takeaway is that Syria becomes for a time and a set of reasons, a nation in two spheres above a country of already bloody, broken ground.
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