Frontlines blur in Syria, with guns pointed in many directions. US missiles muddy the landscape further.
Initially, the United States had pledged to bomb the established positions of the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS): an empty building in Raqqa and convoys of US material stolen from the Iraqi base in Mosul. But even on the first run, US missiles struck more than IS targets. Outside Aleppo, US bombs hit Jabhat al-Nusra positions, where the US claimed to have discovered the “Khorasan Group” – assumed to be an operational al-Qaeda terrorist cell.
After several weeks of largely ineffective bombing, the US has now hit more Jabhat al-Nusra targets as well as Ahrar ash-Sham positions. This suggests that the US is no longer merely targeting the IS, but will also hit at other political Islamist extremist groups inside Syria.
There are no good options for us in Syria; there are only less bad ones.
A former US intelligence officer told me of great uncertainty in the nerve centres of US power. The experience of Libya hangs heavier than that of Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan – although analysts also remain mindful of the outcomes in all these countries. Vast amounts of US treasure and lives have gone into Afghanistan and Iraq. Stability is nowhere on the horizon.
US troops shall now return to Iraq in large numbers, with the promise of more troops to come; the US pushed for Ashraf Ghani to win the Afghanistan election because he had pledged to retain US troops in the country. Libya, Somalia as well as Yemen remain out of bounds for US power – partly thanks to a failed strategy in each of these countries. In short, there is little appetite to enter fully into another adventure in Syria – and yet, the US seems to be edging closer to further action.
When Jabhat al-Nusra’s highly committed fighters overran the positions of Jamal Maarouf’s Jabhat Thuwar Suriyya and Abdullah Awda’s Harakat Hazm surrendered their bases to al-Nusra, the United States’ main moderate allies looked trounced. One reason the US struck Ahrar ash-Sham, said the former US intelligence officer, is to ensure that the Free Syrian Army battalions near the Bab al-Hawa crossing are not overrun entirely.
“There are no good options for us in Syria,” said a White House official; “there are only less bad ones.” The least bad option, it appears, is to strike from the sky and strike anyone who seems to threaten the dwindling remainder of a potential anti-IS, anti-Assad moderate armed coalition.
At the first public briefing at the State Department after the US strikes widened to include targets from Ahrar ash-Sham, the spokesperson said little of consequence. US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the US was not targeting Jabhat al-Nusra (the official al-Qaeda group), but only the Khorasan Group – “networks that are actively plotting against Western interests”. Other than that, the US claims it is trying to train and equip the “moderate opposition” to help “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State.
These statements strain credibility.
First, the potential for the creation of a “moderate opposition” armed force is limited. Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a leader in the Syrian American Council, admitted recently that the United States’ anti-IS strategy is “unravelling”. He had in mind al-Nusra’s advances. Mohammad al-Julani, al-Nusra’s chief, said that his forces would overrun all others “who try to become Western tools against the regional Islamic project”.
Second, the former intelligence officer says that Israeli intelligence has made it clear to Washington that Tel Aviv has no appetite at this time for a regime change in Damascus. Al-Julani’s “regional Islamic project” would pose a threat to Israel. Even if that “regional Islamic project” could be detained by a fratricidal war against Hizballah, the instability would greatly threaten Israel.
Third, air strikes have only made realities on the ground harden against US interests and indeed against those moderate rebels. The current strike on Bab al-Hawa shows that the US is merely defending the few Free Syrian Army detachments that remain rather than fighting an offensive battle against the “regional Islamic project”. Few believe the intelligence about the Khorasan Group is credible – it seems more a fig leaf to allow the White House to strike Syria without new Congressional authorisation. Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham and Zahran Alloush’s Jaish al-Islam seem implacable; there is no possible rapprochement between them and any US-backed entity.
Where does this leave the United States administration? It is confounded by reality. The only card to play has been aerial strikes in Syria, with the vague promise of funds for a new moderate force. Many of the thousand fighters of the US-backed Southern Front were formerly with Jabhat al-Nusra – their commitment to the US project is weak. Tyler Jess Thompson of the US-based advocacy group United for a Free Syria says, “We are creating a generation of terrorists in Syria.” That is precisely what the vacillating White House seems to believe.
Meanwhile, the death toll in Syria hovers over two hundred thousand (the numbers are no longer clear because the UN ceased to count beyond 191,000). Suffering is a condition of Syrian life. Games of power between this army and that one suffocate the lives of Syrians. The worst choice of all is the one that is in play – the destruction of Syrians’ futures.