The recent spat in the Pentagon over whether or not to absorb the air force into another military branch has resurrected a debate as old as human flight: what is the role of aircraft in war? Tactical support to ground forces or strategic bombing?
This debate, argued in journals and blogs in the United States, is playing out on the ground and in the skies over Syria. President Assad is on his way to proving that you don’t need much capability to coerce an insurgency. By commanding the skies, Assad’s air force interdicts rebel supplies and eliminates their sanctuary while at the same time conducting countervalue raids against civilians. This latter mission requires only enough airpower to fly over population centers and shove out homemade barrels filled with explosives. Franco had the Luftwaffe, but the Assad regime has a resource-constrained air force that is barely surviving, but still lethal enough to coerce.
Bombing to Win? Or Negotiate?
If war is politics by other means, then coercion is just a way of getting to “yes.” Both the rebels and the regime hope to inflict enough hardship that the other sues for peace and accepts a new status quo. Nixon hoped that the Linebacker II bombing campaign would force Hanoi back to the negotiating table. Assad’s strategy has not changed much since the uprisings began in 2011: wear out the opposition until it folds or fractures. The regime can win on the battlefield or the negotiating table. By bombing their sanctuary and sources of popular support, the regime can succeed in keeping the rebels on their heels - weakening their organization to the point Assad can kill them off or force them to accept a settlement that keeps him in power. Assad’s incremental use of chemical weapons last year was an efficient way to terrorize cities in rebellion while gauging Western thresholds for intervention and provision of more lethal aid. For now, chemical weapons are off the table, but that does not mean that the killing will be more discriminate.
According to IHS Jane’s, the Syrian Air Force can muster up to 100 sorties a day while avoiding the rebels’ poor air defenses. Helicopter crews can enter rebel-held cities and neighborhoods and push their homemade munitions over the side. Crude, unreliable, and as dumb as munitions come, barrel bombs have incited terror and demonstrated to the opposition and their sympathizers that the regime can strike anywhere and everywhere. Most importantly, it makes it clear to the rebels that Assad has no love of mercy and will not give in. The stakes are incredibly high in every war; each side becomes more invested with every drop of blood spilled. The challenge for Assad is providing rebels a credible alternative to fighting, an exit ramp from the battle that preserves their life and dignity. If he’s inclined, pauses in airstrikes might be a way to signal this while still negotiating from a position of strength. On the other hand, if Assad believes he can still win, he won’t bother negotiating.
The success of the barrel bomb campaign is not the sole reason for stalled peace talks in Geneva, but it is a contributing factor. Neither side is exhausted enough to give in, but there is evidence that the opposition – at least part of it – has tempered its war aims. “Assad must go” is still the rallying cry, but no longer does the opposition – at least the side with Western support – call for the wholesale toppling of the regime. Assad loyalists have succeeded in beating back the rebels, but the rebels themselves and the nature of insurgencies in general are also to blame. Rebellions survive only when their members agree on the rebellion’s overarching objective – what scholars refer to as a “theory of victory.” The Syrian state has proven remarkably unified during years of combat and with military assistance that keeps its gunships flying and troops armed, it is likely to tough it out still longer.
Faced with an insurgency that is withering but slowly, the Assad regime must pursue three goals. First, what few allies Syria has are essential to the sustainment and replenishment of its military, especially its air forces. If Russian arms shipments begin to dry up, regime gains will start to unwind as its forces run out of ammunition, fuel, and spare parts. Second, Assad must continue to exploit fractures in the opposition while keeping his own camp unified. For example, recent news reports indicate some Islamist rebel groups are trading captured oil resources for reprieves from air strikes. As government forces heap gains upon gains, fence-sitters and opportunists looking for a deal will throw their weight behind Damascus. Finally, Assad must keep the violence at a level below what the West can stomach. Like the show, the violence must go on, but only by conventional means. Neither Assad nor President Obama are likely to get a free pass a second time if the war escalates further. Unlike so many of his people, if Assad keeps bombing to win, he might just see old age.
Stalcup is a Center for Strategic and International Studies Nuclear Scholars Initiative fellow and a defense policy analyst in Arlington, VA. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the Dallas Morning News, and The Diplomat current affairs web magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @TravisStalcup.