BAGHDAD — As the United States launches airstrikes against Islamic State extremists in Syria, the Obama administration is walking a precarious line — attempting to crush the militants’ capacity without strengthening President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power.
On a complex battlefield, the American attacks may wind up giving Assad breathing space, at least in the short term, after months in which his forces suffered stinging defeats at the hands of Islamic State militants, analysts and Syrian rebels said. U.S. and allied forces are striking near areas where Assad’s army has suffered setbacks and opposition forces have little capacity to move in.
In neighboring Iraq, the U.S. military campaign over the past six weeks has provided cover for advances on the ground — Kurdish forces, Iraqi counterterrorism troops and Shiite militias have all pushed forward against Islamic State extremists. But in Syria, where the stated U.S. policy is to oust Assad’s government, Syrian rebels who have been fighting both against the regime and the extremists for more than three years have been worn down.
“The regime appears best placed to benefit in the near term — politically and militarily,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East security analyst for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “But a short-term benefit may turn into a long-term disadvantage. It’s too early to tell.”
When questioned at a news briefing on whether the airstrikes could give a boost to the government in Damascus, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., director of operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he “wouldn’t characterize the effects we had last night as benefiting Assad.”
“It’s certainly causing ISIL to address the fact that there now is an air war against them,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
A key issue in who benefits from the U.S. airstrikes is how other parts of President Obama’s strategy play out. Obama has proposed an initial $500 million to arm and train a 5,000-strong Syrian rebel force as part of that strategy against the Islamic State. But, analysts and rebels said, some of the support for the Syrian opposition comes late and still fails to address the root cause of the conflict in the country — Assad’s oppressive rule.
The bombing campaign — in which Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan also participated — struck at least 20 sites in Raqqah city in northern Syria, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across the country. Other strikes hit Deir al-Zour and Hasakah province in the northeast, the Observatory said.
Raqqah province fell entirely into the hands of the Islamic State last month. Until recent months, there had been little direct conflict between the Islamic State and the Syrian army forces, but bolstered by their gains in Iraq, the extremist group has turned from largely fighting other rebels to confronting the regime.
“I think these airstrikes are not going to be effective on the ground,” said Abo Jilan, a Raqqah-based activist. “In Raqqah, there are no fighters to defeat [the Islamic State] and kick them out.”
A more immediate beneficiary may be Syria’s Kurdish forces, with airstrikes hitting the Hasakah region where they have suffered setbacks against the Islamic State. Also opposed to Assad, Kurdish forces have been carving out their own sphere of influence but have come under fierce attack from Islamic State extremists.
Complicating the picture are the U.S. strikes carried out against the Khorasan group, a cell consisting of hard-core members of al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, its Syrian affiliate. Obama said the group presented a direct threat to the United States. While the Islamic State is more isolated on the battlefield, Jabhat al-Nusra regularly coordinates with other rebel groups. Targeting its assets could stir tension among rebel fighters.
Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syria Coalition, the main external political opposition group, and a coordinator for the moderate Harakat Hazem rebel group, said the international community wasn’t presenting a real solution to the country’s crisis.
“The only reason ISIS existed and continues to exist is because the international community allows the Assad regime to continue to operate and commit all these crimes against civilians,” he said, using another acronym for the Islamic State.
“We have always asked for a complete strategy,” he said. “Not just to deal with the symptoms, ISIS, but also the main problem, which is the Assad regime.”
Assad is widely blamed for backing extremists in order to undermine legitimate opposition to his government.
Keen to score domestic political points and to emphasize that the United States needs it as a partner, the Syrian government was quick to point out that it had been informed in advance of the airstrikes. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Syria was simply warned not to engage U.S. aircraft.
In comments carried by Syria’s state news agency, Walid al-Moualem, the country’s foreign minister, warned that the strikes would have little success without collaboration with the government’s forces.
Still, the latest developments could backfire for Assad in the long term, as the world turns its focus to the country’s conflict once more and launches a more-coordinated effort to arm and equip Syrian rebels.
“Assad is the main catalyst for extremism,” said Hadi Bahra, the leader of the main Syrian Opposition Coalition. “If we ever hope to eliminate the threat of extremist ideology, Assad must go.”
Collard reported from Beirut. Suzan Haidamous in Beirut and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.