Already having made considerable gains against a range of rebel forces, the Syrians are thrilled at the recent turn of events in the world. In a year's time, Washington has gone from nearly taking military action against the Syrian regime to targeting its most lethal opponent, the Islamic State. The al Assad regime is not only interested in seeing U.S. military action against the Islamic State. It wants to use this opportunity to try to regain its credibility abroad by being part of an international coalition against the biggest jihadist threat since 9/11.
Though the United States will likely carry out airstrikes against Islamic State assets in Syria, the Obama administration's focus will be on ousting the transnational jihadist group from Iraq. This is because there is consensus among Iraq's domestic and international stakeholders that the country's political system needs to be protected from the al Qaeda offshoot. In sharp contrast, the international community is deeply divided over the fate of the al Assad regime, a cross-border contradiction that will undermine the overall U.S. effort to defeat the Islamic State.
On Tuesday, White House and State Department officials ruled out any coordination between Washington and Damascus in the fight against the Islamic State. They were reacting to an AFP report that said the U.S. government was sharing intelligence on the group with the Syrian regime through Iraqi and Russian channels. A day earlier, The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States had begun reconnaissance flights over Syria, news that triggered a warning against unilateral action from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. He called instead for U.S.-Syrian coordination.
Despite official statements to the contrary, the United States is willing to work with Syria on tactical matters against the Islamic State, but it does not want the arrangement to turn into support for the Syrian government. In many ways the struggle against the Islamic State has distracted from the original conflict — a civil war in Syria. For the Americans, supporting Syria's rebels gives Washington considerable leverage in its talks with Iran.
U.S. support for the rebels has been minimal, however, because a host of Salafist-jihadist militias have dominated the rebel landscape — militias that Washington does not want controlling the country. It should be remembered that a year ago, Washington walked away from military action against the al Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons precisely because Washington did not want to undermine Iranian influence in the region at the cost of empowering jihadists — and that was before the Islamic State had demonstrated its full capabilities. Therefore, the United States is not interested in getting too involved in Syria and would instead prefer to limit itself to countering the Islamic State in Iraq.
But as Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged last week, dislodging the Islamic State from Iraq will require action against the group in Syria, which offers the jihadist movement great strategic depth and access to material resources thanks to the group's control of Syria's energy production sites. The challenge for Washington is how to weaken the Islamic State in Syria without upsetting the balance between the al Assad regime and the rest of the rebels, who seemingly do not have any ambitions beyond Syria.
The fact is that the Islamic State's weakening in Syria as a result of U.S. military action would create a power vacuum that both Damascus and the other rebels would want to fill. It would be difficult for the United States to manage all the moving pieces. It can be argued that while the United States will be striking the Islamic State, it can also work with Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to mobilize the rest of the rebel constellation so as not to give the Syrian regime the upper hand.
This course of action would be very risky given the internal differences between these four Sunni states. Even when the Islamic State has been weakened, nationalist jihadist forces will still dominate the rebel movement in Syria. At the same time, the United States is engaged in talks with Iran over its nuclear program and has begun cooperating with Tehran against the Islamic State in Iraq. It is not possible for the two to achieve their common goal in Iraq while they are conflicting in Syria.
Considering all these factors, the likelihood that the United States will get mired in a complex cross-border conflict is very high, and that is precisely what the Islamic State is hoping for.