Given that the “moderates” are our allies, you would think this problem could be avoided by coordinating with them on where to attack and where not to. But there’s a hitch: We … don’t trust them enough to rely on the intelligence they give us.
You’d trust a group that’s fighting so closely alongside Al Qaeda (a.k.a. the Nusra Front) that bombing the latter means collateral damage for the former, wouldn’t you?
Since U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria began on Sept. 22, there has been no coordination between the U.S. military and its alleged partners on the ground, according to FSA leaders, civilian opposition leaders, and intelligence sources who have been briefed on the U.S. and allied military operation. It’s this lack of communication that led to an airstrike that hit only 200 meters from an FSA facility in the suburbs of Idlib. One source briefed on the incident said multiple FSA fighters were killed in the attack…
The coalition airstrike was targeting a base used by al Nusrah, the local al Qaeda affiliate. And the camp was, essentially, next door to the FSA facility. The al Qaeda fighters and the U.S-endorsed rebels were neighbors—and, at times, partners in battle against ISIS and the Bashar al-Assad regime…
Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, said the Obama administration is not coordinating with the FSA because it still doesn’t believe it can trust the FSA with sensitive information about ongoing military operations. But that also means the FSA can’t capitalize after the strikes by taking over the territory that has been cleared.
There are, supposedly, no U.S. boots on the ground inside Syria to gather targeting info on the ground and, per Josh Rogin’s source, the Pentagon still hasn’t contacted the FSA a week into the Syria campaign to fill that role for them. Meanwhile, the same source claims that few ISIS jihadis have been killed by U.S. bombs so far because, quite rationally, they packed up and vacated their hubs once O announced we were coming for them. Result: Some Al Qaeda casualties, some “moderate” casualties, some civilian casualties, but fewer ISIS casualties than you’d hope.
Another worry here via Rogin is that expanding the targets so soon to include the Nusra Front in a war that’s ostensibly being waged on ISIS risks pushing those two jihadi groups into an alliance. In fact, there are reports floating around at there today that some sort of rapprochement is in the works. The Guardian:
A senior source confirmed that al-Nusra and Isis leaders were now holding war planning meetings. While no deal has yet been formalised, the addition of at least some al-Nusra numbers to Isis would strengthen the group’s ranks and extend its reach at a time when air strikes are crippling its funding sources and slowing its advances in both Syria and Iraq…
In the rebel-held north there is a growing resentment among Islamist units of the Syrian opposition that the strikes have done nothing to weaken the Syrian regime. “We have been calling for these sorts of attacks for three years and when they finally come they don’t help us,” said a leader from the Qatari-backed Islamic Front, which groups together Islamic brigades. “People have lost faith. And they’re angry.
The NYT’s sources made the same point. The rebel opposition is shocked that groups besides ISIS are being targeted and enraged that when the U.S. finally entered the fray, a year after Obama called for bombing Assad, they ended up bombing Assad’s enemies instead. What’s at risk of happening here, as ISIS and the Nusra Front congeal, is our allies in the Free Syrian Army suddenly getting it on all sides. Assad has every reason to keep killing the “moderates”; the west has always eyed them as a potential governing regime in Syria once Assad is gone, so by eliminating them Assad makes himself the only anti-ISIS game in town. And now both ISIS and the Nusra Front have a strong reason to target the FSA. Notwithstanding this week’s mishap, Nusra will suspect that the “moderates” are either already feeling intelligence to the Pentagon about their locations or will be soon. The smarter strategic play here, surreal though it may seem, might have been to leave Al Qaeda alone at first and concentrate on ISIS, so as to better isolate the latter group. But then, maybe that was impossible. Once ISIS is gone, who’s likely to replace them in control of Sunni areas? Right — Al Qaeda. We’re holding the weakest hand on the field with the FSA. To clear a path for them to rule, we’ll have to eliminate … everyone, basically.
I’m already gearing up for 2016, when ISIS and the Nusra Front are gone but now Iran and Hezbollah are stampeding across Sunni areas and suddenly we need to bomb them too. Oh, and by the way: According to some reports, ISIS guerrillas are now within an hour of Baghdad. The Iraqi army’s bases keep getting overrun, partly because the new prime minister hasn’t been able to convince Sunnis to make nice with the Shiite government and expel the jihadis in their midst. Commentators on Iraq seem resigned to the fact that U.S. boots will end up back on the ground in not-insignificant numbers sooner or later, but increasingly it feels like it’ll be more sooner than later. How much territory is the White House willing to see ISIS conquer before it decides the air campaign just isn’t hacking it?