The Case For an IS 'No Drive Zone' in Syria

As the U.S. 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 the IS’s capital city, Raqqa; it’s also an accessible arrival terminal for new recruits from without (i.e. via Turkey) and home to a series of oil fields that are the economic cornerstone of the group’s operations.

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 a murderous Assad regime and his Shiite/Russian patrons.

Fortunately, there is a more sensible and morally defensible track. Specifically, in addition to a beefing up provisions of sophisticated weaponry to the rebel opposition, the U.S. can 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 more cohesive and capable fighting entity. 

Ongoing U.S. efforts to paralyze and overturn 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 counterproductive, 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’s mechanized mobility and high-trajectory firepower -- including Russian tanks, U.S.-issued Humvees, armored personnel carriers, and GPS-fitted howitzer artillery batteries pillaged from Syrian and Iraqi military bases -- are the fulcrum of its offensive muscle. And yet, they can also double as its Achilles Heel.

The use of these systems creates ‘signatures’ that are easy to spot from the air; a reality that has enabled U.S. warplanes to make quick work of IS convoys advancing across Iraq’s desert terrain. And these telltale markers would similarly manifest in Syria’s rural eastern Aleppo, where IS now operates out in the open.

Incidentally, it is precisely in strategically vital Aleppo province that Syria’s revolution -- whipsawed and struggling to stay afloat against encroachments by superiorly armed enemies (i.e. the Syrian Arab Army [SAA] and IS) on multiple fronts -- is on the brink of collapse.

For some, such an outcome is ideal. 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. 

Unfortunately, political science says that a regime victory has dangerous implications. “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 postwar 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.”

This is not to argue that the aftermath of a rebel victory will be pretty -- it probably won’t be. Still, at least the seeds for a more tenable endgame -- one in which the majority voice receives commensurate political influence -- will slowly germinate.  

Some have retorted that it’s too late; that the opposition is way too fragmented and abounds with Islamic extremists for any Western-aided rebel victory to bear fruit. But, in what Wendy Pearlman describes 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. And considering that the average duration of civil wars since 1945 is about 10 years -- Syria’s is going on 3.5 -- neither has the argument that it’s ‘too late’ to act.

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 stratagy that magnifies its effects.

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

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

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 over where to concentrate 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 leeway for organizing itself more coherently and building structures of governance; an eventuality Assad has tenaciously worked to forestall

Admittedly, this scheme is not without its risks. There are legal barriers as well as regime threats to treat any unilateral anti-IS strikes as an ‘act of aggression.’

Speaking to the former, 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 U.S. aircraft solely targeting a group that it is itself -- if only half-heartedly -- at war with? I’m inclined to think such saber-rattling is a token bluff. But to play it on the safe side, the U.S. can go heavy on the use of armed-UAVs and satellites or on-the-ground spotters (whether U.S. special forces or trained rebels) to paint targets for standoff missiles. 

However it goes about it, the U.S. 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.

As the U.S. 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 the IS’s capital city, Raqqa; it’s also an accessible arrival terminal for new recruits from without (i.e. via Turkey) and home to a series of oil fields that are the economic cornerstone of the group’s operations.

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 a murderous Assad regime and his Shiite/Russian patrons.

Fortunately, there is a more sensible and morally defensible track. Specifically, in addition to a beefing up provisions of sophisticated weaponry to the rebel opposition, the U.S. can 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 more cohesive and capable fighting entity. 

Ongoing U.S. efforts to paralyze and overturn 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 counterproductive, 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’s mechanized mobility and high-trajectory firepower -- including Russian tanks, U.S.-issued Humvees, armored personnel carriers, and GPS-fitted howitzer artillery batteries pillaged from Syrian and Iraqi military bases -- are the fulcrum of its offensive muscle. And yet, they can also double as its Achilles Heel.

The use of these systems creates ‘signatures’ that are easy to spot from the air; a reality that has enabled U.S. warplanes to make quick work of IS convoys advancing across Iraq’s desert terrain. And these telltale markers would similarly manifest in Syria’s rural eastern Aleppo, where IS now operates out in the open.

Incidentally, it is precisely in strategically vital Aleppo province that Syria’s revolution -- whipsawed and struggling to stay afloat against encroachments by superiorly armed enemies (i.e. the Syrian Arab Army [SAA] and IS) on multiple fronts -- is on the brink of collapse.

For some, such an outcome is ideal. 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. 

Unfortunately, political science says that a regime victory has dangerous implications. “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 postwar 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.”

This is not to argue that the aftermath of a rebel victory will be pretty -- it probably won’t be. Still, at least the seeds for a more tenable endgame -- one in which the majority voice receives commensurate political influence -- will slowly germinate.  

Some have retorted that it’s too late; that the opposition is way too fragmented and abounds with Islamic extremists for any Western-aided rebel victory to bear fruit. But, in what Wendy Pearlman describes 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. And considering that the average duration of civil wars since 1945 is about 10 years -- Syria’s is going on 3.5 -- neither has the argument that it’s ‘too late’ to act.

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 stratagy that magnifies its effects.

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

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

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 over where to concentrate 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 leeway for organizing itself more coherently and building structures of governance; an eventuality Assad has tenaciously worked to forestall

Admittedly, this scheme is not without its risks. There are legal barriers as well as regime threats to treat any unilateral anti-IS strikes as an ‘act of aggression.’

Speaking to the former, 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 U.S. aircraft solely targeting a group that it is itself -- if only half-heartedly -- at war with? I’m inclined to think such saber-rattling is a token bluff. But to play it on the safe side, the U.S. can go heavy on the use of armed-UAVs and satellites or on-the-ground spotters (whether U.S. special forces or trained rebels) to paint targets for standoff missiles. 

However it goes about it, the U.S. 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.