The case for an IS ‘No Drive Zone’ in Syria

US forces ISISBy Zach Goldberg

Introduction: To Pick A Poison?

As the US continues its limited campaign of surgical strikes against Islamic State (IS) targets in Iraq, defense officials have concluded that meaningful progress in stemming the group’s surge cannot be achieved without striking at its sanctuaries in Syria. The latter is not only the address of IS’s capital, Raqqa; it’s also an accessible arrival terminal for new recruits from without (i.e. via Turkey) and home to a series of vanquished oil fields that underpin the group’s economic power.

The above reality, the backdrop for the group’s recent threats to “drown” Americans “in blood”, has some pundits enjoining the Obama administration to cut its losses with Syria’s ailing rebel-opposition and enter into an anti-IS alliance—if only discreetly–with the Assad regime and his Shiite/Russian patrons.

Of course, a pact with a murderer of tens of thousands of Syrian Sunnis would be unsavory; no less so for an Obama administration that spent the last several years calling for Assad’s ouster. Nevertheless, it is argued, the US will have to pick its poison if it is to roll back a group that is scourging the region and (eventually) beyond.

An Alternative Proposal

Fortunately, there is a more sensible and morally congruous track; one that can weaken both the Assad regime and IS while empowering those who are Syria’s only hope for long-term stability. 

Briefly, in addition to a beefing up provisions of sophisticated weaponry to the rebel opposition, the US should rim rebel-IS fronts with ‘No-Drive zones’ that, enforced by UAVs and/or fix-winged attack aircraft, could: a) revitalize a frayed rebel-opposition that is beleaguered and outgunned by enemies on multiple fronts; b) compel IS to turn its barrels on the Assad regime, thereby detracting resources from their campaigns against the rebels and allowing the forgoing the breathing room to organize into a more cohesive and capable fighting entity.

The Merits of a No-Drive-Zone

Ongoing US efforts of paralyzing and overturning IS advances in Iraq showcase the decisiveness of airpower for hobbling the mechanized movement of combatants and weapon-systems across open terrain. True, it has its limits; it is largely ineffective, if not counter-productive, in urban environments wherein distinguishing friend from foe becomes a parlous affair. And yet, if the object is merely to stymie IS’s outward expansion and harry it whenever it’s on the march then airpower can be “incredibly effective.”

IS, like any other army of conquest, is heavily reliant on vehicles for shuttling manpower and no less significant, the heavy artillery and large caliber machine guns at the foreground of its offensives. Such instruments–including Russian tanks, US-issued Humvees, armored personnel carriers, and GPS-fitted Howitzer artillery batteries pillaged from Syrian and Iraqi military bases–afford IS a nigh insuperable advantage over its comparatively lighter armed opponents.

On this count, a Kurdish official—whose vaunted Peshmerga military group is at the forefront of the battle against IS in Iraq—didn’t mince words: “Light weapons aren’t going to cut it. You can’t pierce armored Humvees with light ammunition.”

Nor do its Kurdish/Iraqi and Syrian-rebel adversaries have an answer for IS’s arsenal of long-range artillery, some of which—the 155mm Howitzer specifically—can pummel targets as far afield as 25 miles.

But while IS’s mechanized mobility and high-trajectory firepower is the fulcrum of its tactical muscle, it can also double as its Achilles Heal. The use of these instruments creates ‘signatures’ that are “easy to spot from the air”; a reality that has enabled US warplanes to make quick work of IS convoys advancing across Iraq’s desert terrain.

These telltale markers would similarly manifest in Syria’s rural eastern Aleppo, where IS now operates“out in the open.”  Sadly, whereas Kurds and pro-government fighters in Iraq can call upon US air-support to stave off impending disaster, Syria’s rebels—whipsawed and struggling to stay afloat against encroachments by superiorly armed enemies (i.e. the Syrian Arab Army [SAA] and IS) on multiple fronts–are on their own.

Why the Revolution Mustn’t Fail

The survival of the Syrian opposition, or at least its footholds in strategically vital areas of the country,seemingly hangs in the balance. Ceding the revolution’s fabled birthplace, Homs, to the SAA in May certainly stung. But for the rebels to lose Aleppo and their critical supply lines along the Turkish border, a prospect they currently confront, would be a “crushing blow to the opposition as a viable fighting force and to its morale.” Their cause in tatters, “some rebels may give up and seek a compromise with the regime, or look to join the only viable fighting force left, which is becoming [IS].”

For some, the dissolution of the revolution is either ideal or the only pathway towards some sort of ‘end game’—however far off. With the rebels out of the picture, choosing sides becomes ostensibly easier; and external support for Assad’s ‘war on terror’– if only tacit or ‘under-the-table’– more forthcoming. Considering IS’s penchant

for embittering whoever it controls, it’s hard to imagine the group holding out forever against a coalition of traditional enemies/spoilers (i.e. Iran, Russia, US) working in lockstep to defeat it.

Beyond dealing IS a major setback, the triumph of the secular Assad–it is hoped–would herald a gradual return to ‘normalcy’. The rancor the Sunni majority harbors towards continued Allawite hegemony may linger for some time. But they–like Egyptians before them—will come to realize that the stability of authoritarianism is more worthwhile than the lability of freedom.

Whichever sanguine forecast one wishes to subscribe to, the political science for its fruition isn’t very encouraging. “Violent insurgencies”, writes MIT’s Roger Peterson, “often involve death, destruction, and desecration — all of which can create powerful emotions” that are unlikely to disappear under any post-war Assad regime; especially not one that is likely to act as authoritarian, if not more so, than ever.

Research has shown that when governments prevail in civil wars, their repression has historically increased “by one or two polity points over the following decades.” Tellingly, the recurrence of war is nearly three times more probable following regime victories than rebel victories.

In the end, even if Assad knocks the rebels out of commission, he’ll continue to run a “minority-based government faced with a large, angry Sunni majority
with tremendous potential for continued terrorism, just as is the case for the Sunni minority in Iraq.”

Those who postulate a sustainable outcome is one that sees 13% of Syria’s population, augmented by cohorts of Christians and Druze (12%), continuing to predominate are likely consigning the country to a bottomless pit of cyclical war.

This is not to argue that the aftermath of a rebel victory will be pretty—it probably won’t. Scores will be settled, and blood will be spilled for years. Still, at least the seeds for a more tenable endgame—one in which the majority voice receives commensurate political influence—will slowly (emphasis on slowly) germinate.

Addressing the Naysayers

Some have retorted that it’s too late; that the opposition is way too fragmented and abound with Islamic extremists for any Western-aided rebel victory to bear fruit. But, in what Wendy Pearlmandescribes as a “cruel irony”, it is Western inaction that “is a cause contributing to fragmentation in Syrian rebels’ ranks as much as it has been a reaction to that fragmentation.”

How rebels are expected to cohere while being subjected to incessant carpet-bombing and assaults from two superiorly equipped foes has never been properly articulated; neither has the argument that it is simply ‘too late’ to do anything.

To put things into perspective, the average duration of civil wars since 1945 is about 10 years. Relatively speaking, the Syrian civil war—nearly 3.5 years old—is still in its infancy. And as Laia Balcellsinsists, “major shifts in foreign assistance on either side may [still] help tip the balance and produce a decisive military outcome.”

Moreover, the consolidation of fissiparous rebel camps is not without a historical precedent. For instance, the succor provided to the “highly fragmented” Republican camp by the USSR in the Spanish civil war was pivotal for the former’s congealment.

America’s Salafi-phobia

Regrettably, the US remains hamstrung by its knee-jerk aversion to propping up ‘extremist’ elements championing the creation of a post-Assad Islamic state. The Qatari funded Islamic Front (IF)–reputedly the most powerful rebel faction (which incidentally is at the forefront of the Aleppo showdown)—falls under this rubric.

However, leaving aside the fact that the group is prominently composed of traditional/moderate Salafists—which, in addition to advocating for the peaceful (i.e. through education, the ballot box) Islamization of society, have no pretentions of ever attacking the West–the specter of a Syrian theocracy is a distant and debatable eventuality that shouldn’t trump other, more foreboding implications; i.e. the melting of the opposition—whatever is left of it—into the IS umbrella

Making Assad Reap What He Has Sowed

Working to rehabilitate and empower the non-global-jihadist rebel camp (the IF included) is the only way forward. The delivery of advanced weaponry/supplies is a necessary step towards this end, but it must be coupled with a stratagem that magnifies its effects.

Parrying both the regime and IS has enervated the rebel opposition; a reality Assad willfullyengineered by conferring the group carte blanch to insinuate itself in regions outside of his orbit. Now, he must be fed a taste of his own medicine.

Recent experience dictates that when IS is “thwarted on one axis of advance, it simply turns and attacks in another direction.” Therefore, as suggested, US aircraft should establish a ‘no IS-drive zone’ around rebel bastions that promptly liquidates vehicular trespassers and prevents the placement of artillery batteries within effective firing ranges.

IS has oodles, but certainly not an infinite number of vehicles. Thus, surgical strikes should be persistent enough to ‘teach’ the group that the only non-pyrrhic vector of advancing runs through regime-controlled territory.

True, a protracted campaign could be expensive; but Saudi Arabia would likely be willing to go dutch on the bill.

With pressure diminished on the rebel-IS front, and the regime having to direct more resources to engage the latter, the opposition will enjoy both greater latitude for deciding where best to prioritize its strength and attendant gains on the battlefield.

No longer staring at a looming IS usurpation, the rebels will have a new lease on life that can discourage desertions and inspire hope for their cause among both their ranks and constituencies. Especially if outfitted with the means for neutralizing the regime’s stifling aerial bombings, the opposition will finally have the leeway to organize itself more coherently and build structures of governance; an eventuality Assad has tenaciously worked to forestall.

Closing Remarks

Admittedly, this scheme is not without its risks. There are legal barriers as well as regime threats—undergirded by its network of surface-to-air missile systems–to treat any unilateral anti-IS strikes as an ‘act of aggression.’

The former will have to be left to the lawyers, which I’m sure can conjure up some sort of legal rationale.  But given that such strikes will spare SAA targets/civilian areas and hit only advancing IS cavalry/artillery, who in the international community is really going to squawk?

As for the latter: does a frail Syrian army really have the temerity to shoot down US aircraft solely targeting a group that itself–if only half-heartedly—is at war with?  I’m inclined to think such saber rattling is a token bluff. But if it wants to play it on the safe-side, the US can go heavy on the use of armed-UAVs and satellites or on-the-ground spotters (whether US special forces or trained rebels) to paint targets for standoff missiles.

However it goes about it, the US badly needs a revamped and emboldened opposition; one that while serving as America’s de-facto eyes and boots on the ground, can both accentuate the hopelessness of the regime’s war-effort and counter IS’s regional foothold.

Zach Goldberg is a former Israeli Army infantryman. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Government and Master’s degree in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security. He writes for his website ‘Information Age Jihad’ and has additionally contributed to Jihadology.Net and the Fair Observer.

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