The United States has conducted more than 175 airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and may soon launch attacks on the group’s stronghold in Syria. But analysts say it could be difficult to develop a military strategy that will not help the besieged government in Damascus.
Analysts say U.S. airstrikes only in Iraq would be ineffective in disrupting Islamic State extremists. They say such a plan could simply drive the militants back into Syria where they would have a chance to regroup.
Syria analyst Jennifer Cafarella with the Institute for the Study of War said, “It is entirely possible that Islamic State militants will be able to recede into Syria, but then to reengage inside of Iraq either through an insurgency campaign or through sustained terrorist operations even after the conclusion of U.S. airstrikes.”
And while soldiers and militias fight the Islamic State jihadis across the border in Iraq, the situation in Syria is more complicated.
For more than three years, Syria’s government has been fighting a civil war against numerous rebel groups, including Islamic State and the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad said, “We believe that international cooperation against terrorism should not exclude any effective party.”
The U.S. and coalition partners have no interest in helping the Damascus government.
Instead, they plan to arm moderate Syrian fighters trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and defeat I-S militants.
But the extremists, also known as ISIS, are becoming part of the population.
“It is far more difficult to target ISIS checkpoints and ISIS headquarters when they are embedded within the Syrian population,” said Cafarella.
Analysts say there are moderate insurgents in Syria, but their top priority is not the Islamic State group.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said, “The Islamic State has killed thousands of people in Syria, as well as in Iraq. But the Bashar al-Assad regime has killed tens of thousands, if not more than that.”
It could take months to train and equip the Syrian opposition to be ready for a ground campaign against Islamic State.
Analyst Samuel Brannen said, “There is not going to be a clear end to this. This is really about containing a threat. It’s not one that may be possible to outright defeat.”
Experts say the U.S. currently does not have the intelligence needed to clear ISIS militants from urban areas and needs to partner with the Syrian opposition and Kurdish groups to obtain it.
And even if airstrikes are launched, will they be enough?
“No, it is not possible solely through the use of air power. It requires sustained cooperation with local elements that are willing and able to resist ISIS in the long term,” said Cafarella.
Analysts say it will be difficult to form a military plan that will not allow the Syrian government, ISIS militants or al-Qaida linked rebels from controlling parts of the country when the air campaign is over.