Alex Rowell

New Syria strikes raise further strategy doubts

Though officials insist they hit “terrorists” on Wednesday, the attacks may further alienate and even endanger moderate rebels

Syrian demonstrators criticize the US campaign in Kafranbel, Idlib Province, 16 October 2014. (Source: Kafranbel Syrian Revolution Facebook page)

Late Wednesday night, the United States undertook what initially appeared to be a serious escalation in its military campaign in Syria, expanding air strikes that have henceforth almost exclusively targeted Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) jihadists to positions held by Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra militants as well as, according to local activists, a base belonging to the non-jihadist Ahrar al-Sham rebel brigade.


The surprise attacks fuelled speculation that the US was retaliating against Nusra, a State Department-designated “terrorist” organization, for its dramatic routing of Washington-backed moderate rebels from Idlib Province over the weekend — a development that put the jihadists within reach of Bab al-Hawa, one of only two border crossings into Turkey remaining in the hands of what is loosely called the Free Syrian Army.


Yet in an official statement Thursday, US Central Command explicitly refuted that notion, claiming instead that all of Wednesday’s strikes were in fact aimed at the so-called Khorasan Group, said by Washington to be a secretive Al-Qaeda cell embedded within Nusra not to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime but rather to plot spectacular attacks on civilian targets in the West. (Though the Pentagon said in September the Group’s leadership had been “eliminated” by strikes at that time, in late October reports emerged to the contrary.)


“These strikes were not in response to the [Nusra] Front's clashes with the Syrian moderate opposition, and they did not target the [Nusra] Front as a whole,” the statement read. Instead, they struck “terrorists and destroy[ed] or severely damage[ed] several Khorasan Group vehicles and buildings assessed to be meeting and staging areas, IED-making facilities and training facilities.”


Central Command is unlikely, however, to convince many within the Syrian opposition who are skeptical of the Khorasan claims, and who feel that attacks on non-ISIS groups such as Nusra and Ahrar signal a de facto alliance between Washington and the Assad regime. In a sign of how strained relations have become between the US and the rebels, one commander of the US-backed Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front told journalists yesterday: “If the U.S. continues to attack al Nusra, I and my men will swear allegiance to [Nusra leader Abu Mohammad] al-Jolani.”


According to Jeffrey White, Defense Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, these frictions are caused by what is a “very murky US strategy in Syria.”


“The counter-ISIS component of it is clear, but what the US is thinking about how it’s operating against other groups in Syria, what it does that might affect the regime’s prospects, all that is very murky,” White told NOW. “And of course you have opposition people in Syria saying the US is now out-and-out cooperating with Assad.”


This perception may not only alienate members of the moderate Syrian opposition — whom Washington officially intends to turn into a 15,000-strong allied force over the next three years — but indeed endanger them, according to Frederic Hof, Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former State Department special adviser on Syria.


“There is a question of timing that has to be taken into account here,” Hof told NOW. “We have a combination of speaking about additional assistance to nationalist opposition forces while hitting Nusra. The effect of that is basically to paint a bull’s-eye on the backs of the nationalist opposition and to encourage Nusra to get into the same game as the regime and ISIS, which is to try to finish these guys off as quickly as possible.”


Accordingly, Hof argues the current course of the US campaign in Syria runs contrary not just to the interests of the opposition but the stated policy of Washington itself.


“Several weeks ago out at Joint Base Andrews the president indicated a fundamental shift in American policy when he talked about supporting governance by the moderate opposition inside Syria by extending that governance and a sense of political legitimacy to all Syrians,” Hof told NOW.


“It would be completely contradictory to that to cut the opposition loose at this point. I think it would be very, very difficult to recruit anybody to this force that the United States wants to build to be a ground component.”


“But there has always been, shall we say, something of a disconnect between what the administration has said about these issues and what it has ultimately done in an operational sense to give meaning to the words.”


For White, that disconnect arises largely from the US envisioning and conducting its Syria campaign as one of counterterrorism, rather than one aimed at bringing about lasting political change.


“If we’re just hitting the Khorasan Group again without reference to the broader situation in Syria, then it illustrates the dominance of the counterterrorism approach in the administration: see a terrorist target, hit a terrorist target, regardless of what else is going on or what the other consequences of that might be,” he told NOW.


“It doesn’t make strategic sense.”


Alex Rowell tweets @disgraceofgod

The opposition is increasingly convinced that Washington’s military campaign in Syria benefits only the Bashar al-Assad regime (Source: Kafranbel Syrian Revolution Facebook page)

It doesn’t make strategic sense.”