AN ISIS member rides on a rocket launcher in Raqqa in Syria two months ago.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
These are tough days for the campaign against Islamic State (aka IS or ISIL). On the Syrian front, the ranks of the nationalist opposition – counted among the “boots on the ground” in the White House’s strategy – are diminishing daily. Across front lines lurk Syrian government forces with chlorine gas and barrel bombs packed with glass and nails. In the rear, erstwhile allies of a more extremist bent determined to impose their vision on the battlefield.
Into the fifth month of the US-led air campaign, the strategic picture remains unclear.
Cracks in the anti-IS strategy were on full display in October with the Syrian nationalist opposition suffering a series of setbacks in the country’s northern hills. As US and allied aircraft were otherwise engaged, local al-Qaida franchisee the Nusra Front rolled over what had been previously been regarded as the strongest nationalist militias, including those of rebel commander Jamal Marouf. Recipients of American- sponsored training and equipment, including TOW anti-tank missiles, these forces had factored prominently in Pentagon designs to eventually confront IS on the ground. This option is now slowly closing.
That the nationalist opposition’s greatest threat these days is not the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad but rather former fellow travelers should come as no surprise. The relationship between the nationalist opposition and anti-Assad forces beholden to the transnational ideology of al-Qaida, and increasingly IS, has been uneasy from the start.
The nationalists seek Assad’s ouster first and foremost. The likes of Nusra view this merely as a starting point.
Ironically, sparking October’s bout of opposition fratricide was the US-led air campaign against IS that in late September expanded to include al-Qaida affiliated targets in Syria. When the White House subsequently announced plans to develop the capacity of Syrian nationalists to “defend themselves... from the other al-Qaida oriented organizations in the battle space,” in the words of the US anti-IS coordinator Gen. John Allen, the writing was on the wall.
As Nusra commanders looked down shared front lines in northern Syria at Jamal Marouf and his troops, the decision faced was likely perceived to be an existential one: allow the US to strengthen the nationalists with the knowledge that newly acquired capabilities could eventually be turned on them, or strike when the odds were still favorable.
Taken by surprise and comparatively ill equipped, the nationalists did not stand a chance.
As for the remaining indigenous “boots” upon which anti-IS strategy in Syria now rests, their confidence has been shaken. If “friendly” forces in the north were deemed not worthy of rescue, what chance did they stand? This fear is having a paralyzing effect on one of the last nationalist alliances worthy of note, the Southern Front.
Still occupying significant swathes of liberated territory along the Syrian- Jordanian border region, the Southern Front faces not unfamiliar odds. On one side, Assad’s proven killing machine, and on the other, highly motivated IS and Nusra fighters whose ambitions go beyond the regime’s collapse. The outlook is increasingly dim.
The only party benefiting from this state of affairs – the attrition of the nationalist opposition and bombing sorties against IS and al-Qaida – is the begetter of Syria’s woes, Bashar Assad. As long as the coalition’s “military aims in Syria are limited to isolating and destroying ISIL’s safe havens,” as outgoing US Defense Secretary Hagel recently reported to Congress, Assad can afford to kick back and allow his adversaries to do his dirty work. He can also argue as he has from the uprising’s first peaceful days in 2011 that his opponents are all jihadists; a claim made easier when the nationalist opposition is finally eliminated.
Four years into the country’s civil war with an estimated 200,000 dead and millions displaced, the anti-IS coalition’s remaining friends in Syria are running scared and for good reason.
The author is a regional development expert who served as a senior advisor in the US Department of State during the administration of George W. Bush.