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.
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.
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.
“A tricky situation is going to be how the U.S. will ensure that it is only ISIS targets that are hit, rather than civilians and others,” said Haras Rafiq of the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank.
The U.S. would most likely target supply lines and heavy weapons to erode the group’s power, rather than wiping it out, said Eliot Higgins, who analyzes weapons used in Syria. “It’s really about targeting the stuff they can’t hide easily.”
Higgins said the U.S. was unlikely to attack the group in cities and towns, where airstrikes could cause civilian deaths and give the group a propaganda victory.
It also would also be difficult to target them if they were attacking government assets, such as military bases, because the U.S. would “end up being air support for the Syrian government,” he said.