US Likely To Attack Islamic State In Syria

It has become increasingly apparent in recent days that the US will attack Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria, most probably in the coming weeks. The militant group has a strong presence in north-eastern Syria as well as Iraq, and over the weekend seized Tabqa airbase from the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. The IS now controls Raqqa province, which is the first in Syria to fall out of government hands. 

The question is, will US airstrikes be carried out with or without the cooperation of President Assad?

Syria feels threatened by the rise of the Islamic State, and has stated that it would cooperate with foreign countries against the group. However, the Syrian government also said that unilateral US military action (i.e. without Damascus's approval) against the Islamic State in Syria would be considered an act of aggression. It was only a year ago that the US considered airstrikes against the Assad regime after accusing it of using chemical weapons against civilians. Therefore, Damascus is likely to be concerned that US attacks on IS targets could also strike government forces. Yet, if the Assad regime attempted to shoot down US aircraft, it would only anger Washington, making any form of rapprochement even harder.

Meanwhile, some opinion makers in the US and Europe are calling for de facto Western support for the Assad regime against the Islamic State, on the basis that it represents a bulwark against the IS, and is the only ground force capable of defeating it.

If the US goes ahead in striking IS targets in Syria, putting it in de facto alignment with the Assad regime, then Iran and Russia are likely to be fairly pleased, for both have supported Damascus from the outset. Shi'a Iran fiercely opposes the Sunni extremist Islamic State, while Russia fears that Sunni radicals in the Levant could later journey to the North Caucasus (little more than 1,000km away) and join the Islamist insurgency there. Increased US involvement in the Middle East would also detract from America's heavy focus on the Ukraine conflict.

Also drawing our attention is the joint military action reportedly undertaken by the UAE and Egypt against Islamist militias in Libya. The UAE's apparent air strikes from bases in Egypt did not involve the US, and they demonstrate that Arab countries are capable of acting on their own initiatives in militarily tackling perceived regional threats.