Reflections on Recent Syrian War Developments


By Richard Weitz

With the death of terrorist leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi at the hands of U.S. Special Forces, the so-called Islamic State has lost critical finances, territory, and now leadership.

These blows have removed several sources of the Islamic State’s attractiveness, both regionally and globally.

Al-Baghdadi had uniquely sinister leadership, recruitment, and combat skills due to his strong jihadist and Islamist credentials, at least in the eyes of his followers, as well as his connections with former Saddam Hussein regime elements and ruthless immorality.

Depriving the Islamic State of its self-proclaimed Caliph and Caliphate should weaken it substantially, at least in the short-term.

There could be some revenge attacks by individual adherents, though these did not occur after Osama bin Laden’s death.

The Islamic State still has substantial assets, but without its senior leader, the group could fractionalize into a regional groupings, especially in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa and Southeast Asia like the Philippines.

The U.S. raid found Al-Baghdadi in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, an area under predominately al-Qaeda control.

He may have been striving to forge tactical partnerships with other terrorist groups.

Conversely, these groups could act on this opportunity of a decapitated Islamic State to gain its followers and revenue streams.

In the next few years, the Islamic State movement will likely face succession disputes, fractionalization into loosely networked affiliations, and merging with other existing and new terrorist groups, including those associated with al-Qaeda.

The main differences between Islamic State and al-Qaeda has been the former’s possession of physical territory (an “Islamic State”) and a uniquely malevolent leader. These divergences have now largely expired.

The regional groupings could emerge in many locations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, such as the Sahel region, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen.

The United States and its partners will need to redouble their efforts, which have been something of an unheralded success, to weaken the attractiveness of Islamist propaganda in these and other regions.

Al-Baghdadi also appears to have been plotting to exploit the disruptive impact of the Turkish military intervention to advance his group’s interests, perhaps even by moving his base of operations into Turkey.

In this regard, Washington and others need to wean the Turks off their practice of using jihadists to fight Kurds in neighboring countries.

Ankara should be alarmed by how close Al-Baghdadi was found to the Turkish border.

The Trump administration has made understandable efforts to strengthen Turkish-U.S. ties by removing Syria as a source of bilateral irritation.

But Moscow has now offered Ankara a better deal by giving Turkey substantially more Syrian territory than Washington did the previous week.

This Putin-Erdogan deal at Sochi includes unprecedented joint patrols by Turkish and Russian troops (replacing the now defunct Turkish-U.S. joint patrols).

This pact builds on earlier moves by Ankara toward Moscow, notably its purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air defense system despite hearing years of counterarguments by NATO leaders and experts.

This act justifiably led the Pentagon to exclude Turkey from the F-35 program and NATO to curtail various joint activities.

In the short-term, the Putin-Erdogan deal clearly benefits the two signatories most.

Through the arrangement, Turkey consolidates its military position in northern Syria while Russia consolidates its preeminent position in the rest of the country.

The agreement also averts a possible near-term military confrontation between the Turkish army and Syrian regime forces, backed by Iran and Russia.

Yet, in the longer-term, there are still challenges for Russian-Turkish relations regarding Syria.

In particular, Russia does not want Turkey to establish a permanent buffer zone in northern Syria, either through military occupation or the relocation of large numbers of Syrian Arab refugees along the Turkish-Syrian border so as to change the area’s ethnic composition.

Regarding U.S. influence in the Middle East, the successful U.S. operation should help restore regional confidence in U.S. military prowess.

Questions concerning U.S. will and capacity likely have arisen due to the faltering U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the effective Russian military intervention in Syria, and the U.S. restraint from kinetic action against Iran.

The blow against the Islamic State could have a positive impact on Syria’s future security.

For example, it would help reassure Syrian refugees in exile that they can return to their home territories without less angst of feared Islamic State territorial resurgence.

Nonetheless, one should not be too optimistic about the Geneva or Astana peace processes, led respectively by the UN and Moscow, given the wide gaps between the Syrian actors and their foreign backers.

Furthermore, the weakening of their common Islamic State adversary could remove a force binding some of these Syrian and foreign actors together.

The U.S. military drawdown could force other actors to accept more of the burden for promoting security and counterterrorism in Syria.

But preventing an Islamic State resurgence in Syria likely will require the United States to continue employing manned and unmanned aircraft as well as Special Forces against select terrorist targets of opportunity.

As in the past, the United States may need to partner, tacitly and temporarily, with other foreign and local Syrian actors to counter threats from terrorists operating there.

To shape the behavior of both nation states like Turkey and the Syrian regime, as well as terrorist groups in Syria, the United States can employ diplomacy, sanctions, and military power.

Without many boots on the ground, besides select Special Forces missions, the Pentagon will need to rely on air and missile strikes, possibly throughout Syrian territory to prevent further mass atrocities, WMD use, or the reconstitution of terrorist camps.

This is a good task for the F-15, which has shown its value in less contested air environments in deterring asymmetrical threats from both nation states, such as Turkey, and non-state actors, like terrorist groups.

For instance, on October 16, U.S. Special Forces were targeted by Turkish-backed militias as they departed from Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria.

The appearance of two F-15 fighter aircraft, along with diplomatic communications and an Apache attack helicopter, coerced those Turkish-backed militias into ceasing their firing on U.S. troops.

The visibility of the F-15s are good for intimidating, and therefore deterring, non-state actors and their state sponsors.

In this regard, there have been proposals for U.S. forces to occupy and exploit Syria’s oil fields.

Besides smelling of 19th century imperialism, these ideas do not make practical sense.

Militarily occupying these oil fields would cost more in terms of money and human resources than they are worth.

The fields do not produce much oil and any occupation is bound to rouse costly Syrian resistance.

The U.S. forces confined to guarding oil fields would be difficult to defend since they would be a stationary target amidst an alienated local population.

Suggestions that U.S. companies like Exxon could develop the oil and sell it are not credible since U.S. private companies will not invest in a warzone when larger fields and better investment climates exist in other countries.

Keeping the oil out of terrorists’ hands can be done best by air strikes to destroy any oil stocks they seize.

Attack helicopters and strike drones would work best for urban operations, where discrimination is needed to limit civilian casualties and other collateral damage.

Meanwhile, the F-35, unmatched in air-to-air combat but limited in numbers due to perennial underfunding of the U.S. defense budget, can focus on deterring great powers like China and Russia as well as preparing for major regional contingencies with Iran and North Korea.

These countries’ growing air power threats, from both other airplanes and air defense systems like the S400, have been evident in recent parades, exercises, and other manifestations.

The F-35s are critical for defeating Chinese and Russian fifth-generation fighters, penetrating their integrated multilayered air defense networks, as well as reassuring U.S. allies and partners facing high-end threats.

If the United States plans to fight wars without a large ground footprint, we will need to adequately resource our air power capabilities.

The featured photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a joint press conference following their talks in the Black sea resort of Sochi on October 22, 2019. (Photo by Sergei CHIRIKOV / POOL / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI CHIRIKOV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)