Syria Strike: Will Hitting Assad Help Al-Qaeda?

Even though the UN has not yet concluded whether Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime or the rebels were responsible for the chemical weapons slaughter in Damascus, President Barack Obama is insisting that the U.S. is somehow certain of Assad's guilt, without providing the public with evidence to substantiate his claims.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem has argued that U.S. attacks would only help Al-Qaeda, and some U.S. military experts in the U.S. agree. Significant military intervention from the West could indeed severely weaken the Assad regime, thereby aiding Al-Qaeda by default. However, provided that Obama stands by his intentions to engage in proportional, limited, surgical strikes, it would likely not weaken the regime's infrastructure significantly enough to pose any significant advantage to Al-Qaeda.

In April 2013, Al-Qaeda in Iraq formally merged with Syria's Islamist rebel Jabhat al-Nusra to form the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, with the ultimate goal of establishing a Sunni caliphate based on sharia law in the region. U.S. intelligence sources estimate that there are currently more than 6,000 foreigners fighting in Syria on both sides of the conflict, including jihadists from Iraq and fighters from the Pakistani Taliban. Furthermore, wealthy backers from the Arab Gulf states finance these al-Qaeda aligned rebels. As a result, al-Qaeda linked brigades are much better organized, funded, well-paid, and ultimately stronger than their Free Syrian Army (FSA) counterparts.

Ultimately, if U.S. military intervention sought to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power, it would not end the war. Rather, it would expedite the next phase of the war: the inevitable showdown between the Free Syrian Army and Al-Qaeda Islamists. There is already infighting between both rebel factions and the destruction of the Assad regime would merely allow Al-Qaeda and its affiliates to easily eradicate the FSA as even more civilians continue to die in the crossfire. Once Al-Qaeda has control of most of Syria, they would have an incredibly strong foothold to further destabilize and continue their deadly, rapidly escalating attacks in Iraq and the entire region.

U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, mirroring Afghanistan and Iraq, would be the absolute, worst possible scenario for all parties involved. Luckily, there has been little serious discussion of this option, and the 60% of Americans opposed to intervention would likely deter elected officials from condoning such a drastic course.  

The rebels agree that ground involvement would be ineffective but are adamant about an extensive U.S. bombardment on Assad's military infrastructure. They go so far as to advocate for the bombing of chemical weapons stockpiles, which the Obama administration has acknowledged would be an environmental and health disaster, allowing the rebels to pillage the sites for leftover weapons.

The FSA seems to favor action that would alleviate Assad's aerial and tank attacks on its soldiers, which would likely involve a sustained no-fly zone. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey has said that such a no-fly zone could destroy the Assad regime but would take more time and resources than the NATO intervention in Libya due to Syria's more sophisticated air defense systems.

In addition to the danger and cost, sustained U.S. presence resulting from a no-fly zone would be an invaluable recruitment tool for Al-Qaeda. As such, the U.S. would likely remain in Syria after the regime's removal to begin another long, entrenched Middle Eastern war against Al-Qaeda guerillas.

Fortunately Obama has said that he is unwilling to force regime change, while Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron stated that he does not intend to mire the U.K. in another Afghanistan- or Iraq-style war. If Western powers limit themselves to surgical, limited intervention meant to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, Al-Qaeda aligned forces will not have a game changing advantage and the U.S. is unlikely to become involved in another protracted war.

That said, war is incredibly profitable for a wide array of special interests and the military-industrial complex tends to spiral out of control very quickly. As such, Americans would do well to lobby their legislators to pressure Obama into respecting the War Powers Act of 1973 and the Constitution before committing the U.S. to another conflict, however limited. As hostilities commence, it is imperative that Americans pay attention and hold their elected officials accountable for any expansion of the conflict.