Syrians check a damaged house, reportedly hit by US-led coalition air strikes, in the village of Kfar Derian in the western Aleppo province on September 23, 2014
Syrians check a damaged house, reportedly hit by US-led coalition air strikes, in the village of Kfar Derian in the western Aleppo province on September 23, 2014 © Sami Ali - AFP
Syrians check a damaged house, reportedly hit by US-led coalition air strikes, in the village of Kfar Derian in the western Aleppo province on September 23, 2014
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Sammy Ketz, AFP
Last updated: September 24, 2014

Syria can't stop US strikes, but hopes to benefit

It may be unable to prevent US-led strikes on its territory, but Syria is hoping the military action against Islamic State jihadists will work to its advantage, analysts said.

On Tuesday, after the United States and its Arab allies bombarded numerous IS sites in Syria, the government in Damascus said it welcomed any international effort against "terrorism" and said it had been notified before the raids.

"They've had to accept reality," Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre, said of the regime's relatively muted response.

"They could have taken the route of screaming and kicking and threatening, but they probably had to take the only realistic course of action, which was to try to put a good face on it."

In August, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warned any military action on Syrian territory without coordination with Damascus would be considered "aggression".

But on Tuesday, his ministry insisted Washington had informed both Muallem and Syria's UN envoy before unleashing the strikes.

And President Bashar al-Assad said he welcomed "any international effort to fight against terrorism".

- Cooperation with Damascus? -

Damascus has been keen to present itself as an ally in the fight against jihadists, though it uses the term "terrorists" to refer to all those who have been fighting to oust Assad since 2011.

Bassam Abu Abdullah, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Damascus, said the Syrian government considered its forces key to the international effort against jihadists.

"The coalition will be forced to cooperate with Syria because there is no force on the ground capable of fighting terrorism apart from the Syrian army and its allies," said Abdullah, who is close to the Damascus regime.

"This cooperation could be a prelude to political negotiations," he said.

Syria's government has longed insisted the fight against "terrorism" should take precedence over everything else, including negotiations about political reform.

The West, including Washington, has said Assad must step down, and backed the armed opposition against him.

- Regime hopes for role -

But Karim Bitar, a researcher at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations think-tank, said the US-led strikes could end up benefitting Assad's regime.

"I think the strikes could indirectly benefit the regime, at least in the short term," he told AFP.

"Because the most radical groups, like the Islamic State or (Al-Qaeda affiliate) Al-Nusra Front will be trying to escape the strikes or limit their impact and, as a result, will be able to put less pressure on the regime."

For now, the Syrian government is engaged in "indirect and tacit coordination" with the coalition via the Iraqi government "that could evolve progressively into more open coordination with the United States," said Bitar.

"That's exactly what Assad is hoping for."

On the ground, that is the outcome that most concerns activists who are opposed to both the regime and jihadist groups.

"Of course people want Daesh to leave Raqa, but we worry that this may play into the regime's hands," he said, referring to the Islamic State group and its main Syrian stronghold.

"The regime might be able to redeploy into areas abandoned by Daesh," he said.

But Shaikh said that while Syrian opposition forces remained too weak to capitalise on the US strikes, regime troops were also overstretched.

Moving into areas formerly held by jihadists might not be a top priority for Assad's forces, he said.

"I don't think at least in the immediate term that's how he's going to capitalise," he said.

Instead, he predicted Damascus would reach out to members of the coalition fighting jihadists to offer intelligence help and position itself as a partner.

"I think what the Assad regime will still try to do is prove that only it has the intelligence and human resources capable of dealing with Daesh," he said.

"It's whether or not he can present himself as a valuable asset for them on the ground."

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