The US-led strikes on ISIS militants in Syria on Monday were the beginning a “credible and sustainable” campaign to destroy the Islamic State.
However, after six weeks and nearly 200 strikes in Iraq, the extremist Sunni criminal army has not budged. And US-backed rebels in Syria are too busy fighting for survival in the country’s largest city to capitalise off initial strikes.
The primary challenge facing the long-term campaign is the lack of dependable forces on the ground.
“Military analysts say the weak link in the strategy for combating the Islamic State remains the ability to train and equip Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels,” The New York Times reports. “It will take time to build up forces in both countries that will be strong enough to capture and hold territory from the militants.”
And then there’s the issue of who they are fighting. Without allied forces to capture ground from bombarded ISIS militants, then only forces hostile to coalition interests — like Iranian-backed Shia militias or Syrian regime forces — will reap the benefits.
“By engaging ISIS, the US is simultaneously 1) acting as a proxy air force for Iran, whose IRGC has become a line of defence for the Shi’a dominated Iraqi government and 2) becoming the saviour for Iran’s regional ally; the Assad regime in Syria,” counterterrorism expert Clint Watts says. “By destroying ISIS without addressing the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. is rewarding its adversary Iran, who bloodied American noses the past decade in Iraq.”
The Mass-Murdering Elephant In The Room
“If there is a comprehensive solution which targets the regime and the jihadi groups together, then all the Syrian people will stand by us, and they will be with the bombing,” Col. Hassan Hamadi, a defected Syrian army officer whose Legion 5 force has about 6,400 fighters, told McClatchy.
He added that if the war against ISIS (and other terrorists) excludes the regime, then “it’s lacking something important.”
The Obama administration’s plan involves the hope “that by sometime next year, a well-vetted force of at least 5,000 Syrians, trained in Saudi Arabia and other countries, will be ready.” Those forces will presumably be asked to focus on ISIS, which has an estimated 20,000 to 32,000 fighters.
The fact that Obama seems more willing to work with Assad — who has tortured and bombed civilians and revolutionaries on an industrial scale unseen since World War II — rather than spur his ouster is seen as a critical flaw in his overall plan to eradicate ISIS.
Our problem in Syria isn’t easily resolved. US goals and the goals of mainstream Syrian rebels are *not* at all aligned.
— Shadi Hamid (@shadihamid) September 24, 2014
“We have always asked for a complete strategy,” Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syria Coalition, the main external political opposition group, and a coordinator for the US-backed Harakat Hazem rebel group, told The Washington Post. “Not just to deal with the symptoms, ISIS, but also the main problem, which is the Assad regime.”
Other Syrian revolutionaries largely agree, noting that Assad facilitated the rise of ISIS in a successful attempt to ensure his own survival.
“The Syrian regime is responsible for [ISIS],” a 40-year-old chemical engineer from Homs told McClatchy. “If you want to get rid of extreme Islamists — and I do — you have to get rid of Assad. Just give us the weapons to fight him.”
Faysal Itani, a Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, argued in The New York Times that the solution for the Obama administration in Syria is to boost rebels by accelerating the train-and-equip program while also targeting ISIS near Aleppo.
Like in Iraq, the alternative to strong support is that the US will lose allies on the ground who can actually defeat ISIS and work toward coalition interests.
“If ISIS is driven from Aleppo and loses border crossings with Turkey there, the opposition could recover, regroup and regain the initiative against both the regime and ISIS,” Itani wrote. “If, on the other hand, the United States leaves these rebel groups outgunned, outspent and essentially surrounded, an air campaign against ISIS will in the long term merely eliminate a powerful regime rival.”
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