Entirely foreseeable. Now that we’ve taken over “bombing ISIS” duties from Assad in Syria, he’s got some free time on his hands. Guess what he’s doing with it.
A United States official said there were indications that since the American campaign started, Syrian fighter jets and helicopters had increased strikes somewhat in the core territories of non-Islamic State insurgents, such as Idlib, Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs.
“It would be silly for them not to take advantage of the U.S. doing airstrikes,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence reports. “They’ve 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 centers.”…
The attacks by the Syrian government are creating other political problems for the United States. With both air forces in the sky, attacks by the Syrian government can be mistaken for American ones, including raids that kill civilians.
We’re bombing Syrian territory held by ISIS so Assad’s bombing the rest, which is bad not only on its own terms but because non-ISIS Sunni territory is where, presumably, we’ll do most of our recruiting for that U.S.-trained rebel force that’s supposedly going to oust ISIS once we’ve weakened them with airstrikes. How do you think recruiting will go now that “moderate” Syrians see us as de facto allies of Assad at best and secret collaborators with their Shiite tormentors at worst? (Bombing the Khorasan Group in territory held by the Nusra Front further confused Syrians, notes the NYT, since they thought our air campaign was aimed at ISIS only.) As I say, this was foreseeable: A week after Obama announced the new war on ISIS and promised new aid to Syrian “moderates,” members of the Free Syrian Army applauded the move — with the caveat that they’d be using American weapons to fight Assad too, not just ISIS. The White House isn’t on board with that, so our bombs are falling on jihadis but not on the monster in Damascus. That’s a rational decision on our part — it’s jihadis plotting against the U.S. whom we’re worried about, not Assad — but the fact that the FSA and other Sunni rebels want to focus on Assad is rational too. He’s more of a military threat to them than ISIS is at the moment; he’s a member of the opposing sect in the great Sunni/Shiite civil war whereas ISIS is on the same side; and they’d stand a better chance of being integrated later into a Sunni caliphate that’s dominated by ISIS than into a post-war Syria in which Assad has won decisively and is looking to cleanse the defeated rebels. It’s an odd thing to have allies whose core interests are so far out of alignment with your own that you’re fighting different enemies, but here we are.
More from the Guardian:
“Syrian warplanes used to shell us two or three times a week but now they target us every day thanks to the coalition forces,” Faris Samir, from Harm in the northern Idlib region, complained on Thursday…
Officials of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main western-backed rebel grouping – supposed to form the nucleus of a new, more effective US-backed fighting force – protest that there is no coordination with them. ”Our supporters could be the coalition’s eyes and ears on the ground,” said one. “US strikes are being unproductive, hitting empty buildings or killing civilians. That’s why there has been such anti-strike sentiment building up inside Syria. People can’t believe that all this attention is being paid to Isis when they see Assad as the biggest terrorist.”…
Politically, it is a different story. “It is undeniable that Assad benefits in many ways from the anti-Isis campaign,” said Hokayem. “His own attacks and atrocities have received less attention. He cultivates ambiguity about coordination with the international coalition and benefits from the disarray and frustration among rebel forces and their sympathisers; the defection of some rebel units to Isis helps him portray all rebels as extremists.
The reason there’s no U.S. coordination with the FSA, of course, is because the Pentagon doesn’t trust them to serve America’s interests rather than their own. If they give U.S. commanders the coordinates of what’s allegedly an ISIS weapons depot, how can we know that it’s not actually an Assad weapons depot that they’re duping us into hitting instead? And how long would it be before FSA scouts are demanding some sort of anti-Assad quid pro quo for the ISIS intelligence they’re providing? E.g., “Sure, we’ll tell you where the local ISIS headquarters is. Just as soon as you bomb the local Syrian army barracks.” Again, this is what happens when you and your “allies” are focused on different enemies.
So who’s the big loser in this scenario? As long as ISIS is the big loser, we can tolerate “moderate” Syrians taking losses from Assad too, right? Maybe not: A Syrian opposition spokesman claims that, after three years of war with mass casualties on both sides, Assad no longer has the manpower to go in and retake ISIS territory once we’ve bombed the jihadis with airstrikes. At the rate we’re going, though, they’re won’t be much of a moderate Sunni force left to go in and retake that territory either; Assad’s busy killing those people while we’re busy killing ISIS. It could be that, down the road, we reach a worst-of-all-worlds stalemate in which ISIS has been weakened to the point where it can’t threaten Assad’s hold on Syria’s Shiite areas while Assad has been weakened to the point where he can’t threaten ISIS’s hold on Sunni areas. What then?
If you missed it a few days ago, here’s John McCain and Lindsey Graham arguing that the only way to “win” in Syria is to target Assad too. That feels like self-parody from the Senate’s two most hyper hyper-interventionists but they anticipated the anger among Syrians at seeing Assad capitalize on the west’s airstrikes, and there’s a logic to their argument per the point I just made. If we don’t want ISIS in charge of Syria and we don’t want Assad in charge of Syria, what’s the logic in targeting only one of those sides while the other grows comparatively stronger? Are we planning on shifting to bombing Assad once ISIS is gone? If you’re invested in the pipe dream of sorta-moderate Syrians ruling the country later, both will need to be dislodged eventually.