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Airstrikes Begin in Syria: A Decisive Blow or an Ominous Precedent?

The Obama administration has just announced that they and their coalition allies have begun a fierce campaign in Syria.

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The Obama Administration has just announced that they and their coalition allies have begun a fierce campaign in Syria, bombing primarily “hard-targets” in the IS stronghold of Raqqa (about 20 of them). Here’s what is known—and perhaps more importantly—what is not known so far:

“Sunni Arab” Partners

The U.S. was the only non-Arab actor to participate in the Syria raids. Collaborating with the U.S. were five other Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan.

While many pundits have and will continue to describe them as “moderate Arab allies”—what “moderate” usually means is something akin to “compliant with the U.S. agenda in the region.” What may be more significant to note about these powers is that they are all monarchies—in fact, the actors who took part in the strike are most of the region’s surviving dynasties (excluding only Oman, Kuwait, and Morocco).

The Gulf monarchs are far from beloved in Iraq, even among the Sunni population. Readers may remember that the “Sunni” Hussein regime wanted to go to war with the KSA, provoking the U.S.-led Operation Desert Shield. There is a long enmity between the peoples of Iraq and the Gulf monarchs—and an even deeper enmity between these powers and the Syrians. So the idea that the populations of IS-occupied Iraq and Syria will find these forces and their actions legitimate simply in virtue of the fact that they are “Sunni” is a gross oversimplification that reinforces problematic sectarian narratives even as it obscures important geopolitical truths. Among them:

If anything, the alliance that carried out the strike actually reinforces the narrative of the IS: it will be framed as the United States and its oppressive monarchic proxies collaborating to stifle the Arab Uprisings in order to preserve the doomed status quo.

In a similar manner, it is somewhat irrelevant that salafi and “moderate” Sunni Muslim religious authorities have condemned al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate” as invalid and ill-conceived—in part because it presupposes that most of the foreign fighters who are joining ISIS for ideological reasons are devout, well-informed about fiqh and closely following the rulings of jurists, etc. In fact, the opposite seems to be true, and many of those coming from abroad to join the IS are motivated primarily by factors other than religion. Even much of their indigenous support is from people who join for money, or else due to their grievances against the governments in Iraq and/or Syria—not because they buy into the vision of al-Baghdadi and his ilk. Accordingly, the value of “Sunni buy-in,” framed religiously, is probably both misstated and overstated.

And not only will the involvement of the Gulf kingdoms strikes be extremely controversial on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but also within the emirates who took part in these raids. Syria and the so-called “Islamic State” remain highly polarizing issues across the region—many will be apprehensive of their governments getting involved, others actually support the aspirations of these mujahedeen and view their own regimes as corrupt.

None of the local democracies in Turkey, Tunisia, or Lebanon are taking part—likely because the issue is so polarizing, and each of these countries face so many domestic problems that they cannot be dragged into a potential quagmire. But for this very reason, the governments who are participating will hardly be embraced by the Arab main street: regardless as to whether or not they are ostensibly “Sunni” they are the very sort of powers that ISIS and those who sympathize with them would want to resist or overthrow.

No Coordination With the Regime

U.S. military officials have stated that the strikes ongoing today are intended to be the most intense portion of the campaign in Syria, with the efforts taking on a look much closer to current operations in Iraq hereafter.

This announcement has puzzled many commentators, who wondered why the Administration would tell the enemy that they plan on scaling back; pundits have been similarly critical of the Administration’s decision to broadcast its intention to begin this campaign nearly two weeks before the strikes were launched as it gave the IS plenty of time to relocate critical assets and to integrate themselves more heavily into civilian areas, hoping to drive up collateral damage in the event of a strike—which would likely fuel resentment against the international intervention.

However, the motivation for the explication is fairly obvious: the U.S. was essentially forced to broadcast its intentions because of its policy of not cooperating or coordinating with the Syrian government. The White House has to let the Syrians know what is happening because it does not want them to interfere with the mission for the sake of self-defense, or to overreact to a dramatic campaign in the fear that the coalition is moving for regime-change. So they have to be fairly transparent, as the Syrian government has previously stated that any non-approved strikes would be considered an act of aggression. An easy way, perhaps the only way, to avoid this would be to openly collaborate with the al-Asad regime–but this would come with its own set of complications.

There are conflicting accounts about the level of interaction between the Syrian and American governments prior to the raids. The Americans have denied that they would give any notice or information—however, the SANA News Agency is reporting that the United States did give the regime warning of the impending strikes via its UN envoy.

In any case, so long as the strikes remain confined to the IS held-territories, the Syrians have every incentive to let them proceed unabated, with or without the diplomatic boost they would get for being an overt ally in the “war against ISIS.”

But it is an open question as to whether or not the strikes remain contained to ISIS held territories.

A Free-for-All?

If the United States is acting without the consent of the Syrian government, it would be a violation of its national sovereignty, and also, therefore, of international law. But what would be more disturbing, perhaps, is that the United States is encouraging these other regional actors, most of whom have an expressed intention to see the Syrian government overthrown, to also violate Syrian territory with impunity—with at least three of them having taken “kinetic action” (i.e. dropped bombs) during this incursion.

This is following closely after Egypt and the UAE decided to carry out strikes on “militants” in Libya without permission of the Libyan government or the U.N. Security Council—again, following on a U.S. precedent in that country.

While America’s frequent and flagrant violation of other nation’s sovereignty is disturbing, for the sake of preserving the unipolar order America generally tries to reserve for itself a monopoly on megalomania—especially in tactically-critical regions. That other countries feel increasingly confident to carry out these sorts of actions without meaningful international reprisal may be a troubling precedent.

Having already violated Syrian sovereignty with the blessing of the United States, if the monarchs decide to go further in an attempt to topple the al-Asad government or to opportunistically pursue other self-serving ends, the United States would be in no position to prevent this escalation. In short, it remains to be seen if the coalition remains a disciplined and unified front or if it devolves into a free-for-all—perhaps exploding far beyond the borders of Syria.

Either way, with this action America has also set the stage to expand its own operations in Syria–be it in this Administration or the next.

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