Air Strikes, Power Vacuums, and Responsible Actors: Why the US launched airstrikes in Iraq and not Syria


Accompanying the online buzz regarding the US decision to launch air strikes in Iraq against Islamic State (IS) are questions as to why strikes were launched in Iraq but not in Syria. The two nations present vastly different scenarios and several reasons for why it made sense to authorize strikes in one and not the other. Let’s examine them now.

Post-strike, Northern Iraq has a responsible actor to fill the power vacuum. In North-east Iraq the Kurdish Peshmerga have long maintained security and stability and were only challenged by IS after the latter bulked up with looted American heavy armor and guns. Once the heavy equipment is neutralized by airstrikes and the militants are pushed back from their positions, the Peshmerga will immediately re-occupy those positions and provide again what will (likely) be unchallenged security.

This is an easy scenario for western leaders to support: The Kurds have long-eschewed terrorist violence in their own attempts for statehood, are well-organized, bound by a strong sense of national identity, have most of the trappings of a state and – most appealingly – are secular. Air strikes in support of the Peshmerga would go a long way to increasing security and stability for the entire region.

Contrast that with North-east Syria, the region of some of the most intense fighting and likely area of air strikes when President Obama was mulling them in the summer and fall of 2013. The most appealing actor to the west was the Syrian National Coalition and there was little faith that they would be able to occupy and hold any positions gained via American air strikes. There was – and remains – a patchwork of groups operating in Syria, many of them Islamist, and many operating under auspices of the National Coalition. It’s hardly a responsible a group that the Obama administration could enthusiastically get behind, especially considering that even secular rebels have been responsible for atrocities. It was quite likely that air strikes against regime forces would have created a power vacuum to have been filled by more extreme actors. Given the rise of IS, that outcome now seems likely.

Syria is Russian turf, Iraq is American turf. Syria has been a client state of Russia since the Cold War and remains one to this day. The Syrian army is outfit with mostly Russian kit, and the relationship between the two states is close, with ongoing arms deals worth billions of dollars. Russia has ships in Syrian waters, most notably in the port of Tartus, Russia’s most distant military facility. Any action by the US or its allies would risk provoking the ire of the Russians, at a time when US-Russian relations were already heading towards an historic nadir.

Iraq, on the other hand, has no Russian presence and historically little involvement in the country, whereas America… well, we’re all familiar with that part of the story.

(It’s worth noting this dynamic isn’t as straight-forward as it used to be: With the US pivot towards the Asian far east and away from the Middle East, Russian has seen an opportunity to increase its influence in the region. This was brilliantly illustrated earlier this summer when Russia swept in to make a delivery of 25 fighter jets to Iraq while the US stalled on its own delivery of jets, likely due to ongoing displeasure with Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki).

The Syrian Government is still the legitimate and recognized sovereign of the state and has seen frequent Russian military aid since the start of the civil war. Authorizing airstrikes against the Assad regime and Russian-supplied jets and helicopters would have brought the US significantly closer to conflict with Russia in state long considered Russian turf.

Islamic State doesn’t have many friends. In international affairs, it’s really important who your friends are and Islamic State doesn’t really have any good friends. It’s most notable state sponsor seems to be Qatar, which has come under increased criticism from the US for its actions (Qatar is also notably a sponsor of Hamas in the Gaza Strip). Kuwait, another nation seen supporting IS, mostly through lax laws on money transfers, has seen wealthy individuals recently sanctioned by the US for funding terrorist activities, although the government is making a concerted attempt to crack down on it.

Turkey, for its part, still seems to act as a conduit for fighters seeking to join Islamic groups in Syria and Iraq, but less enthusiastically after IS kidnapped 60-odd Turkish nationals in the last two months, including 49 in the Turkish consulate in Mosul in early June. While it may have served Turkey’s interests to act as a conduit for fighters when they were fighting the Syrian Regime, it stopped being such when IS became powerful enough to become a discrete threat on their own (IS considers Turkey to be too western), and the high-water mark of nascent relations between the two have long since passed.

Saudi Arabia is another nation often accused of being a state sponsor for the group, but the nation itself has denied providing financing. Which isn’t to say that money hasn’t flowed to the group from the Kingdom. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been moved via wealthy individuals and Islamic charities. It’s also possible that before IS rose to prominence the Saudis likely supported or encouraged private fundraising efforts focused on funneling money to the mish-mash of Islamist fighters in Syria in an effort to undermine the Assad regime, of which IS was just one.

Notably, Saudi Arabia sent 30,000 troops to the Iraqi border in June, partly out of fear of IS, the creation of which it’s tried to pin on Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki for failing to unite Shias and Sunnis.

Islamic State is America’s mess. This is a minor point that no one seems to bother making anymore, but I’ll be the outlyer: despite Obama referring to IS as requiring an “Iraqi solution”, anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the region will recall that IS is an offset of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Al-Qaeda franchise that benefited from the disastrous US-led invasion of Iraq. As in other examples, an invading force, rightly or wrongly, has frequently been the trigger for nurturing the growth of a rebel group that eventually grew to become a larger threat than what originally prompted the invasion (see Al Qaeda in response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and Hezbollah in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon). This calculus was finally employed in the decision against strikes in Syria, and it has its place somewhere in the decision to strike in Iraq.

Add to this overall picture the clear-and-present threat to the civilian Yazidis and non-Muslim minorities, the Obama Administration likely would have welcomed the ease in making the decision to launch air strikes in Iraq, even if it did mean that it was backtracking somewhat on its desire to not have a military presence inside Iraq and they would need to re-evaluate their position towards Iraqi Kurds. Despite sharing a border, Iraq and Syria have very different political situations that make air strikes in Iraq a vastly different prospect from air strikes in Syria.