Defeating ISIS was the singular goal of the Trump administration in Syria until the Assad regime provoked U.S. missile strikes with its use of sarin gas. The broadening of U.S. objectives, and extending military action in the country to include a direct hit on Syrian forces, could now complicate the fight against the Islamic State to a dangerous degree.

 A man holding a shovel surveys a crater left by what locals said was a Scud missile strike
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Bryan Denton

The most hazardous impediment might be the increased risk of confrontation between Russian and American aircraft. U.S. planes provide critical air support for Kurdish and other forces attacking ISIS in Syria, while Russian aircraft are in the skies bombing territory held by other rebel groups. The U.S. and Russia had established a successful communication channel to ensure their planes don’t intersect.

If Russia, as reported, has suspended this “deconfliction” mechanism, it’s likely American forces will operate with far more caution when flying against ISIS, delaying the liberation of Raqqa and other territories controlled by the extremists. Russia also has the advanced S400 anti-aircraft missile system in Syria, posing additional risk to U.S. planes providing air support to anti-ISIS fighters, in case of either misidentification or a mistaken perception of what an American aircraft is doing. The U.S. air assault also might prompt Iran to exert its own pressure on the United States on a number of fronts where both sides are involved, from Syria to Iraq to Yemen.

But it’s hard to know whether Russia or Iran would seek to inhibit U.S. forces countering ISIS, a common enemy. Having watched U.S. policy on Syria take a sharp turn in a matter of days, they may calculate that any provocation could lead to expansion of U.S. engagement to the detriment of their client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. So far, it appears the American air strikes are a reaction to a specific incident, not a change in U.S. strategy.

While the strikes may raise hopes of the Syrian opposition for further U.S. action, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kept the focus on ISIS yesterday when he portrayed the attacks as a signal aimed, at least indirectly, at extremist groups, in addition to the Syrian government. The availability of a weapon like sarin gas in Syria’s chaotic conditions alongside the presence of ISIS and al-Qaida, poses an “existential threat” to the American homeland, he said.

The U.S. also will have to keep an eye on whether the strikes weaken Assad and what the effects of that would be. A fast crumbling of the regime without a ready alternative could ease advances by ISIS, al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other extremist groups, drawing the U.S. deeper into the Syrian conflagration.

That, in turn, could lead Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to expand their involvement. With these nations’ overlapping and conflicting interests in the Syrian war, the possibility of an unwanted confrontation among any combination of forces cannot be discounted. 

Related Publications

ISIS is a Problem of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

ISIS is a Problem of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Thursday, July 28, 2022

By: Sarhang Hamasaeed

More than three years after its military defeat in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is a downgraded threat thanks to the collective efforts of the U.S.-led global coalition that coalesced to defeat it along with Iraqi and Syrian partners. While the extremist group’s capacity has been drastically reduced and millions of people have returned home, ISIS has managed to continue attacks year after year despite no longer holding territory. Meanwhile, some of the most difficult human legacies — the challenges facing the people the ISIS conflict left behind — are still with us, with no end in sight.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

Putin and Erdogan in Iran to Discuss Syria’s Future, Ukraine War

Putin and Erdogan in Iran to Discuss Syria’s Future, Ukraine War

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

By: John Drennan;  Sarhang Hamasaeed;  Mona Yacoubian

The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran are gathering in Tehran, with Ankara’s threat of a new incursion into northern Syria likely to top the agenda. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has both domestic and strategic reasons for the move, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi want to maintain the status quo in Syria, where both their countries have expended significant resources to prop up the Assad regime. Russia’s war on Ukraine will also feature prominently at the trilateral summit. Iran has offered to provide Moscow with drones and Putin and Erdogan are reportedly set to discuss restarting Ukrainian grain exports in the Black Sea.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & PreventionGlobal Policy

Could Syria Have Been Saved by a U.S. Effort to Bring It to Peace with Israel?

Could Syria Have Been Saved by a U.S. Effort to Bring It to Peace with Israel?

Thursday, July 14, 2022

By: Adam Gallagher

Over a decade into Syria’s civil war, it’s hard to fathom the country at peace and integrated with the international community. The Assad regime’s brutal oppression of protests in March 2011 sparked more than 10 years of violence, conflict and tragedy in the country. But in the weeks before, there was quiet hope that a clandestine U.S. effort could broker a land-for-peace deal between Israel and Syria. For Syria, such a peace agreement would have resulted in the lifting of U.S. sanctions and financial assistance, trade and investment from the international community, giving Syrians hope for a better future.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Event Extra: The Untold Story of a U.S. Attempt to Forge Israel-Syria Peace

Event Extra: The Untold Story of a U.S. Attempt to Forge Israel-Syria Peace

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

By: Adam Gallagher

In a new USIP book, Ambassador Frederic Hof tells the story of a secret U.S. effort to broker peace between Israel and Syria between 2009-2011. Just as that effort seemed to be making important progress, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime began to violently suppress Syrian protesters, scuttling the chance for peace. Hof discusses what the foundation of Israel-Syria peace would have looked like, the pre-2011 perceptions of Assad as a "reformer," President Biden's trip to the Middle East and how the international community should deal with the Syrian dictator today.

Type: Podcast

Global Policy

View All Publications