For Both Assad and Rebels, Opportunity Lies in U.S.-led Syria Strikes

Strikes against Islamic State and Nusra Front militants deep inside Syrian territory signifies new chapter in the Syrian civil war.

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An area U.S. officials say was an IS vehicle staging center near Abu Kamal, Syria, is seen before and after it was struck by U.S. aircraft in a U.S. Dept. of Defense handout picture. Sept. 23, 2014
An area U.S. officials say was an IS vehicle staging center near Abu Kamal, Syria, is seen before and after it was struck by U.S. aircraft in a U.S. Dept. of Defense handout picture. Sept. 23, 2014Credit: Reuters
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The recent strikes carried out against Islamic State and Nusra Front militants by the U.S.-led coalition deep within Syrian territory signify the start of a new chapter in the bloody struggle being between Syrian rebels and the Assad regime since 2011 over the nation's future. 

It is not without cause that speakers for the Syrian opposition, who envision themselves as the future inhabitants of the Damascus presidential palace, welcomed the air strikes and called for their continuation. Even if the strikes are currently limited to regions not posing a direct threat to the Assad government, the rebels are finally seeing an outsider military presence - unlimited in its force - starting to work in Syria. In the future, the rebels hope, it will also aid in toppling Assad.

For that opposition, a real window of opportunity has now been opened - one that could allow it to gain control over vast swaths of Syria, if and when the campaign against the Islamist militants is completed. At that point, the opposition will need to prove to the international community that they are the best alternative for leading the Syrian people - an objective they have until now failed to achieve.

The opposition forces also draw hope from the fact that the U.S. and several Arab nations - Saudia Arabia chief among them – have agreed to arm rebels with "equilibrium-breaking" weapons and training, which would aid them in filling the vacuum that would emerge in regions currently controlled by Islamic State and Nusra Front militants.

On paper, it would appear the rebels' strategy regarding anti-IS coalition is built on a solid foundation - but its success greatly depends on the funds and arms to be transferred to the secular forces of the opposition, and the readiness of said militias to enforce actual control on the ground. The possibility of such a scenario should worry Assad, but he too has his reasons for supporting the strikes, as he half-heartedly did on Wednesday - despite their being a blatant breach of Syrian sovereignty and airspace.

Assad, too, realizes that his chances of doing significant damage to Islamic State and its allies are slim. The U.S.-led strikes will help him rid himself of the militias that pose the greatest danger to his rule.

The question now is whether Syria's central government will be able to refill the vacuum created by the strikes, and buy itself an additional few years of rule. Also, can the Syrian central government count on its Iranian and Russian allies to not lend a hand to any move that would hasten an end to its rule?

Another possibility is that Assad will continue to exert control only within the large cities, and then attempt to bolster his position through diplomatic moves.

The coming weeks and months will presumably provide us with a better picture on where Syria is headed. Is Syria headed for a power-transition shaped by the U.S.-led military umbrella and strengthening of the Free Syrian Army? Or will we see a more restrictive shift that would see a perpetuation of the bloody struggle between the Assad regime and the opposition forces, with it spilling over into areas currently under the control of Islamic State. 

A F/A-18F Super Hornet flies over the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf on Tues., Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting strike missions against Islamic State targets in Syria.Credit: AP/U.S. Navy

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