From the get go, Syria's civil war has offered few easy policy choices for the Obama administration, which said repeatedly that President Bashar al-Assad had to go but was hesitant to provide significant military support to armed regime opponents.
Now, the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq has dragged the US and its allies into what appears to be an open-ended conflict. And critics of US policy say Mr. Assad, who had lost ground to the jihadists, is profiting at the expense of his fractured opposition. Even US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel concedes Assad's regime has benefited somewhat since the US decided to take the fight to IS in Syria.
But regional analysts say the reality is more complex, and the question of whether or not Assad has truly benefited is far murkier.
Many Syrian activists and rebels complain that the tempo of the Syrian Air Force’s strikes in opposition areas has increased since the start of US-led air strikes. In the past fortnight, the Assad regime undertook nearly 800 aerial bombardments, dropping no fewer than 401 barrel bombs across the country and killing at least 221 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Britain-based group, which gathers data from a network of activists and medics on the ground, said the regime was “taking advantage” of the world’s focus on the jihadists’ siege against the northern Syrian city of Kobane. The proximity of Kobane, also known as Ayn Arab, to Turkey has allowed global media outlets the rare luxury of directly observing events in Syria from a safe distance.
While many in the Syrian opposition initially welcomed the coalition’s intervention, its narrow mandate against Islamic State fueled resentment and suspicion. With the death toll in the civil war surpassing 191,000, according to conservative United Nations figures, regime opponents say Assad represents a bigger threat – and commits more acts of terror – than IS jihadists.
“Everyone is against the international coalition now because the only one who benefits from this intervention is the regime. It relieved pressure on the regime in the north, allowing it to strike hard at other areas,” says Adeeb Asaad, a survivor of the regime’s siege in Old Homs City who now lives in the nearby suburb of Al-Waer. His neighborhood is encircled by government troops and recently witnessed intensified shelling and bombardment.
In a press briefing at the Pentagon last week, Mr. Hagel admitted Assad derives “some benefit” from the campaign. He worries, according to an October memo cited by The New York Times, that Syria policy “is in danger of unraveling” unless Washington sharpens its strategy on Assad.
“Any weakening of the Islamic State obviously boosts the Assad regime,” says Syrian analyst Malik al-Abdeh in London.
But while the regime initially made limited gains against IS in Deir Ezzor, an area targeted by US warplanes, fresh challenges emerged elsewhere. IS has taken a number of loyalist towns in east Hama and snatched two gas fields in Homs Province.
“In all, the regime's losses against IS -- since the air campaign started -- outweigh its gains,” says Mr. Abdeh. The airstrikes, limited in scope and largely centered in Kobane, have had little impact on the Islamic State’s command and control structure, or its ability to operate in Syria and Iraq. And the Assad regime focuses on areas held by other armed rebels over those held by IS simply because they are of greater strategic value.
No big shift in Syrian air power
“I don’t see any real change on regime strategy based on the onset of coalition air operations inside Syria,” says Jeffrey White, defense fellow and Levant specialist at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.
“The argument that the Syrian Air Force has shifted a lot of its efforts from IS against other groups doesn’t hold because they weren’t making big efforts against IS in the past,” says Mr. White. “What is being under-talked about is the fact that rebels were heavily involved in fighting against IS, and therefore coalition operations that weaken IS benefit the rebels.”
The spike in sorties, he says, suggests that other factors may be at work, such us a boost in assistance, new spare parts, or the arrival of new aircraft. There hasn’t been a corresponding spike in civilian casualties, according to data gathered by the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria.
"The regime continues to prioritize hitting the so-called moderate and not moderate opposition, i.e. not the Islamic State,” says Yezid Sayigh of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre. “It is taking the opportunity to try and improve its position, especially in the northwest and the north… (and) it continues to fight around Damascus.”
In Aleppo, the regime is making slow progress toward isolating rebel-controlled areas. On Oct. 23, the regime retook control of the strategic town of Al-Morek, which links the capital Damascus to Aleppo. Rebels, meanwhile, appear to have the momentum in the south, gaining new territory and threatening supply lines around the capital and a border post with Jordan.
The conflict, which begun in 2011 as a popular uprising against an autocratic regime, disintegrated into a multifaceted war involving regime regular and irregular forces, moderate and radical rebels, foreign fighters in both camps, and IS. The Syrian opposition is extremely fractious with alliances shifting all the time.
Gains by Al Qaeda affiliate
In the northwestern province of Idlib, US-backed moderate rebels have lost men and ground to Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra. In a major blow to Jamal Maarouf, commander of the Syria Revolutionaries Front, dozens of his men allegedly defected to join al Nusra, triggering fighting that culminated in the loss of his hometown. Al-Nusra also seized military bases in Idlib from major US arms recipient, Haraket Hazm.
Nusra was targeted in the first round of air strikes in Syria, sparking a backlash and even some demonstrations in support of the group, which has emerged as one of the most effective forces fighting the Syrian regime. Like the Islamic State it draws on foreign fighters forged in Iraq and beyond but its aims are local. Some regard it as less corrupt than US-sanctioned rebels.
Cracks, meanwhile, are also showing on the regime side, which is attempting to boost its ranks with conscripts and reservists. Some 1,300 men were forcibly conscripted to the army in Hama alone in a wave of arrests and raids in October, according to activists there. The regime is said to be increasingly reliant on irregular force. “It all comes together to paint a picture of regime manpower shortages,” says Theodore Bell of the Institute for the Study of War.
“The regime knows that the Syrian civil war will not be settled on the battlefield. Big power diplomacy will be decisive,” says Abdeh. “Assad is hoping that, when all is said and done, his murderous but secular regime will be chosen over the murderous but religious regime of (IS leader Abu Bakr) al-Baghdadi.”