Error message

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

USIP’s Work on the ISIS Threat

USIP’s Work on the ISIS Threat

Monday, April 17, 2017

The U.S. Institute of Peace has operated on the ground in Iraq since 2003 and in Afghanistan since 2002, as well as in Libya, Nigeria, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. As a small, agile institution, USIP works with local leaders and the U.S. government, including the military, to stabilize areas devastated by ISIS, end cycles of revenge, and address the root causes of radicalization, including corrupt and abusive governance.

Violent Extremism; Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Q&A: Will U.S. Strikes on Syria Change Conflict’s Course?

Q&A: Will U.S. Strikes on Syria Change Conflict’s Course?

Friday, April 7, 2017

By: USIP Staff

The United States launched its first air strikes against forces backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the country’s civil war began six years ago, in retaliation for a chemical-weapons attack that killed more than 80 civilian men, women and children. Elie Abouaoun, who is director of Middle East and North Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace and is based in the region, examines the strategic implications, and USIP President Nancy Lindborg, who has worked for nearly 30 years on humanitarian crises and areas affected by conflict, comments on the factors that prompted the U.S. attack.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Violent Extremism; Global Policy

From Nazis to ISIS: Women’s Roles in Violence

From Nazis to ISIS: Women’s Roles in Violence

Thursday, March 2, 2017

By: Fred Strasser

From the Nazi regime of the 1940s through the Islamic State of today’s Middle East, an obscured element of history runs though the phenomenon of violent extremism: the participation of women. Contrary to the classic image of women as victims or, at least more recently, peacemakers, new research shows how women can stoke, support and sometimes directly join in violent action, scholars said in a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Gender; Violent Extremism; Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Panel Urges New View of Middle East Refugees

Panel Urges New View of Middle East Refugees

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

By: Fred Strasser

The refugee crisis that has spread to Europe and the breakdown of the Middle East’s century-old political order demand new thinking about the economic role of displaced people and a reassessment of donor strategies to rebuild societies in conflict, a working group convened by the U.S. Institute of Peace concluded. The panel’s report, developed under USIP’s Manal Omar and Elie Abouaoun as part of Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, calls for refugees to be viewed as potential e...

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Violent Extremism; Economics & Environment; Fragility and Resilience; Human Rights

View All Publications