In September 2013, the United States stood on the brink of an armed intervention in Syria following the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons outside Damascus. One year later, U.S. military intervention is once again on the horizon. However, amidst the fanfare surrounding the US's march toward war against the Islamic State (IS), one must ask, what is Washington's true plan in Syria, and how strong is Vice President Joe Biden's commitment to pursuit of the group to the "Gates of Hell".
On the surface, the U.S. is pursuing a double-pronged strategy which aims to stem the transnational advance of IS and empower moderate rebel factions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). To this end, the U.S. has carried out a series of air strikes in Iraq to secure Baghdad and Erbil and is preparing for a broad aerial campaign which will target IS's operational stronghold in Raqqa, as well as its leadership and strategic positions in both Iraq and Syria. US, as well as other Western and Arab military advisors based in Jordan, have additionally increased their support of rebel factions operating in southern Syria, contributing to recent gains made in the Qunietra Province. The U.S. congress has further passed a legislative measure approving the Obama administration's plan to train and arm moderate groups battling IS.
The question remains, what is Washington's long-term objective in Syria? Does the U.S. aim to eradicate IS? Initiate regime change? Both destroy IS and the Assad regime; or, none of the above? Beneath Biden's bravado, IS's accent has not altered the U.S.'s core Syria doctrine; and Washington likely maintains a more realistic agenda that aims first and foremost, to support restoration of relative stability in Iraq and contain IS within the boundaries of Syria.
It is beyond unfortunate, but the stark reality is that U.S. intervention in Syria will not hasten the conflict's end. It will not create added pressure for the removal of the Assad regime, or support for its legitimacy; nor will U.S. aid and training significantly empower parties that will remain long-term Western allies.
Despite broad international support for the U.S.-led coalition against IS, the fundamental characteristics of the Syrian conflict remain unchanged. The Assad regime has breached international law and violated its political contract with the people of Syria; the moderate Syrian opposition remains politically disenfranchised and marginalized on-the-ground; and the armed rebel insurgency continues to be dominated by Islamist factions ranging in their level of extremity, from the Islamic Front which calls for an Islamic state in Syria only, to the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. Both cooperate, or loosely coordinate with rebel groups slated to receive U.S. support.
Thus, with the continued absence of viable options, the U.S. has effectively invoked a policy of containment in Syria, which if successful, will extricate IS from territory controlled in Iraq, mitigate its expanding regional and international influence, and limit spillover violence into neighboring countries.