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Airstrikes Against Islamic State Involve Dance With Assad


As U.S. airstrikes continue against the so-called Islamic State in Syria, one question is will those strikes end up helping the regime of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad - the regime that for several years now the Obama administration has said must go. To talk about that, I'm joined by Andrew Tabler. He specializes in Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Andrew, welcome back to the program.

ANDREW TABLER: Thanks very much.

BLOCK: And it does seem reasonable to think that if the U.S. airstrikes succeed in weakening the Islamic State in Syria, then that creates a vacuum that Assad's military forces can fill. That creates territory that they could seize or retake.

TABLER: It certainly does, and the Assad regime is garrisoned in the middle of the country around Palmyra, which is normally the place where the regime strikes out to the East to retake areas like Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor where the Islamic State is now prevalent. The problem, though, has been that the Assad regime's military forces even in the West have not been faring very well, especially against jihadists. So we'll have to wait and see if the regime decides to step in and fill the vacuum. Or, will the moderate rebels do so?

BLOCK: Well, let me ask you about that because there are reports today that after the U.S. airstrikes on ISIS positions northeast of Aleppo, the Syrian army in fact moved in and destroyed those positions - finished the job essentially. Those reports are coming from Syrian state media, we should say. But do you find them credible?

TABLER: Correct. Well, we'll have to wait and see. Also, the reports coming out - are they airstrikes which is what the regime primarily does, or is it something more formidable? But the real test is going to be are they able to retake those areas and hold them? And that's been the weakness of the Syrian-Arab army during the entire uprising. They're able to go into an area. They're able to whack the mole on the head in the game that they've been playing for the last three years. But they're unable to destroy their enemies and to completely pacify the populations in those areas.

BLOCK: Realistically when you think about the state of the modern Syrian opposition - as fractured as it is, as poorly armed as it appears to be, how likely would it be that they could move in to fill that void, or is that really not an option?

TABLER: It would depend on where. They are strongest in the North and the South. And here we're talking about non-jihadist forces. What's possible is that what could fill that void would be Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate.

And there is another possibility, and I think this is much more likely in the East. You have something - people and organizations from the ground up could literally fill the void. And there in the East, it's tribes. And there's a lot of friction between ISIS and the tribes in the Euphrates Valley, and I don't think it's a mistake that a lot of the American bombing campaign has happened on the Iraqi border where there has been the most friction between ISIS and the tribes in that area.

BLOCK: The implication being what?

TABLER: That actually by destroying ISIS in that area, you don't benefit the regime. What you do is you cause a popular uprising of the tribes in that area. And the Sheitat tribe in particular - ISIS not only assassinated, but decapitated a number of its members not long ago. We think that they certainly want to get some revenge on ISIS, and it could be a way of bringing some more moderate forces into the fight against ISIS that were not previously there.

BLOCK: As you think about how this is playing out, could you make the case that we have essentially moved into a de facto alliance with the Assad regime? We know that the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, gave advance notice of the airstrikes to the Syrian government. According to the Pentagon, Syrian radar has been passive during these airstrikes.

TABLER: Right, well - no, I don't think we're in an alliance. We share the same objective, ISIS. But the planes that we're flying over Syria, by all indications, you know, had their antimissile systems fully loaded and locked, waiting for any kind of action from the Assad regime.

Now, I think also we need to look at - while we might share an immediate objective in destroying ISIS, we do not certainly share the same objective in accounting for the majority Sunni population inside of Syria. And that's where the Assad regime falls consistently short.

So I don't think we're in an alliance. We would like, you know, to get rid of ISIS. But the end result - the end goals are completely different. And I think that will essentially pull the two sides even further apart.

BLOCK: Sure. But by sharing that immediate objective, as you say, does that create real policy issues for the United States in how it conducts this air campaign?

TABLER: Certainly, I think it does. It creates a natural tension inside of Syria - the boundaries of the country as we see it today. But I think, actually, Syria has been divided into three for some time - the West which is dominated by Assad, the center dominated by the Sunni forces which includes ISIS, and then the Northeast which include the Kurds. If you look at it in that way, then they perhaps don't conflict that much. But we we'll have to just wait and see how this shakes out.

It is interesting that in order to get all of the regional countries - the Arab powers and the Sunni powers on side, President Obama had to commit significantly to the Syrian opposition and to arming them and to training them. We'll see if they're able, with the help of their friends in the region, to fill that void. And that's going to be the contest going forward here in the few months and years ahead.

BLOCK: Andrew Tabler is a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East policy. Andrew, thanks very much.

TABLER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.