To stop ISIS in Syria, bomb Assad's forces
By Peter Juul The Obama administration's strategy to confront ISIS is incomplete. President Obama has gotten congressional approval for increased assistance to the Syrian opposition - what he called "the best counterweight to extremists." And the U.S.-led coalition has hit ISIS strongholds in Syria, as well as the Islamist militant group's front-line forces in Iraq. But what remains unclear is how the administration's anti-ISIS plan deals with Syria's civil war.
By Peter Juul
The Obama administration's strategy to confront ISIS is incomplete.
President Obama has gotten congressional approval for increased assistance to the Syrian opposition - what he called "the best counterweight to extremists." And the U.S.-led coalition has hit ISIS strongholds in Syria, as well as the Islamist militant group's front-line forces in Iraq. But what remains unclear is how the administration's anti-ISIS plan deals with Syria's civil war.
The president argues that a political solution remains the only way to "solve Syria's crisis once and for all." But the administration hasn't made clear how it intends to obtain this political solution with the regime of Bashar al-Assad increasingly confident of its military position.
The administration's instincts that defeating ISIS requires a political solution to Syria's civil war are right. However, while U.S. and coalition air strikes can inflict serious damage on ISIS and prevent it from making further gains on the ground in Syria, they are unlikely to help bring about a resolution to the country's internal conflicts.
Any political solution to the broader conflict in Syria is impossible so long as the Assad regime believes it can achieve its objectives militarily. As a result, in order to bring about the political solution he seeks. Obama should seriously consider expanding the current air campaign to target Assad's forces.
American diplomatic efforts toward a political solution have foundered on their disconnect from events on the battlefield. Over the past year, the Assad regime has made slow but steady gains against the opposition. It clearly believes it can achieve its objectives militarily, as indicated by its recalcitrant performance at the Geneva II talks aimed at brokering a political solution to the conflict.
Since January, the military situation has only gotten worse for the opposition. Following an agreement with rebels holding the city, the regime retook Homs in May, and it is slowly squeezing the last major opposition stronghold in Aleppo.
At the same time, opposition forces have been forced to fight on two fronts, against Assad and ISIS. Strikes against ISIS can relieve pressure on one of these fronts, but they alone cannot help bring about a political solution in Syria.
Expanding the coalition air campaign to hit Assad's troops in the field and their supply networks, however, could halt the regime's military advances - particularly around Aleppo. The goal would not be to coerce Assad into a real diplomatic process, but instead to convince him and his cronies that they cannot achieve their objectives through military force by denying them the ability to do so.
Bombing Assad's forces would also help close a hole in the Obama administration's anti-ISIS strategy. It makes little sense to spend half a billion dollars to train and equip anti-ISIS fighters, only to have Assad kill and maim them once they make it to the front lines. Air strikes against the regime could seriously limit its ability to damage the very forces the United States is depending on to take the fight to ISIS in Syria.
In the end, regime attacks against opposition forces effectively benefit ISIS. Allowing Assad to pressure or even wipe out opposition forces will cripple the fight against ISIS before it can taxi to the runway, much less get off the ground. Taking the regime pressure off U.S.-backed fighters will give them time and space to develop and move against ISIS.
In short, there does not appear to be a way the United States can either bring about a political solution to the civil war in Syria or realistically prosecute its campaign against ISIS without fighting the Assad regime. A political solution will remain impossible if Assad and his international backers believe they can achieve their objectives through the brutal application of military force - including barrel bombs and starvation. Only by effectively challenging this belief can the United States hope to bring about a political solution.
The United States has little to lose diplomatically in expanding its air campaign in Syria. Assad's backers in Moscow and Tehran have already complained that the coalition's air strikes against ISIS are illegal. The prospective gains from sapping the regime's confidence in military victory are worth the flak from Russian and Iranian diplomats.
Military action is always a hazardous endeavor. Expanding air strikes in Syria to include Assad regime targets should not be undertaken unless there is a willingness to push anew for a diplomatic solution to the country's civil war. These strikes should not be conducted for their own sake, but as part of a wider plan that aims to both defeat ISIS and end the violence in Syria, which sowed the seeds for the militants' rise.
Allowing Assad to continue his bloody campaign against the Syrian opposition unmolested will only bring grief to the campaign against ISIS.