Analysts are currently debating whether US airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will end up unintentionally bolstering the Assad regime as much as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that we are attempting to support. After all, Assad’s domestic Alawite constituency is increasingly losing faith in the leader as a direct result of ISIS’s successful strikes and demonstrations of strength in both Syria and Iraq. By striking down one extremist group in Syria, are we simply creating room for the authoritarian government to thrive? A consideration of multiple actors, rather than a simple Cold War-era assumption of bipolarity, will help us to more accurately answer this question. When modeled as a multi-player game, the potential effect of US opposition to ISIS in Syria may lead us to different conclusions.
If we consider the FSA’s gains relative to the Assad regime, it is not a foregone conclusion that US airstrikes will harm US interests by helping Assad. Rather than asking whether the Assad regime will benefit from airstrikes, the relevant question to ask is who stands to gain more from the elimination or weakening of ISIS: the United States and our allies or the Assad regime? While the answer to this question is unclear, it is far from obvious to conclude that harming ISIS differentially helps Assad. On the other hand, Assad is not the only US enemy who stands to benefit from a weakened ISIS. Al Qaeda, for example, has notably disowned ISIS for its extremism. By harming ISIS, then, are we indirectly helping Al Qaeda? Again it comes down to a question of relative gains. Who stands to benefit more from a weakened ally in Iraq and Syria? Because the US is conducting airstrikes on both fronts, whereas Assad and other groups are only fighting ISIS in one country or another, it is not inconceivable that the US has more to gain. On the other hand, the US also has less to lose as a result of inaction. A more formal modeling of the problem, as well as a more in-depth analysis of the groups in question, would offer greater clarification on this issue.
There are certainly other reasons that US airstrikes in Syria may not be the best way to pursue US goals. A crucial element in the success of US policy will be how our actions are perceived among Syrian Sunnis. If Sunnis perceive US actions as supporting the Assad regime, they will be more likely to support ISIS, causing the US strategy to backfire. The reaction of local Sunnis will largely be a factor of public education and non-military campaigns. But how these campaigns could be carried out with multiple groups is not well understood. For example, if we build infrastructure in Syria as part of a “hearts and minds” campaign, who would we be supporting? Which actors benefit most from improved infrastructure: the government or the moderate rebel group from whom the infrastructure funding is ostensibly drawn?
While a great deal of political science literature in the realm of counterinsurgency has considered actions of the government, insurgents, and civilians, very little work has focused on the role of multiple players in counterinsurgency warfare. We therefore have little understanding of how network dynamics, combinations of actors, and problems of collective action can affect the success or failure of a counterinsurgency campaign. Including multiple actors into our studies of international processes can bring us a long way toward understanding the best strategy for US actions in Syria. This is one of many cases in which multipolarity has the potential to lead us to useful scholarly and policy conclusions.