There are two obvious weaknesses with the Obama administration’s plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Iraq and Syria: Weak partners on the ground, especially in Syria, and the further emboldened Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Both are increasingly problematic as the broad campaign unfolds.
The US-backed Iraqi military keeps losing ground to ISIS militants who are consolidating their hold on the western Anbar province and inching toward Baghdad.
As for Syria, on Wednesday Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby flatly told reporters: “We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria. It’s just a fact. I can’t change that.”
And Anne Barnard and Eric Schmidt of The New York Times report that the Syrian government has stepped up aerial bombardments of rebel-held areas as American warplanes target ISIS infrastructure.
“It would be silly for [Assad and his allies] not to take advantage of the US doing airstrikes,” one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence reports, told The Times. “They have focused in the west and left off the east, where we are operating. Essentially, we’ve allowed them to perform an economy of force. They don’t have to be focused all over the country, just on those who threaten their population centres.”
That stakes are high as Assad and ISIS both aim to eradicate nationalist rebels seeking to topple the regime, and they are on the verge of doing so.
The relatively moderate opposition forces — including thousands of defectors from the Syrian army — are currently being squeezed by both Assad’s troops and ISIS fighters in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, and a new ISIS offensive threatens to cut off FSA rebel supply lines to Turkey.
Hussam Marie, the Free Syrian Army spokesman for northern Syria, told The Times last month that the loss of FSA positions in and around Aleppo would be “unrecoverable” and “a blow to our shared goals of a moderate Syria.”
Furthermore, it would play into Assad’s strategy of facilitating the rise of ISIS and eliminating the Free Syrian Army, thereby presenting the West with “a classical choice between military powers and Sunni extremists.”
Overall, the situation in Syria is beginning to look like an intensified version of the State Department’s worst-case scenario as of June 2013: “rebel gains evaporating, the moderate opposition … imploding, large ungoverned spaces [ruled by ISIS], Assad holding on indefinitely, neighbours endangered, and Iran, Hizbollah, and Iraqi militias taking root.”
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