Syrian opposition forces, Obama's key to defeating the Islamic State, say the Pentagon isn't consulting them on airstrikes.
- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
Just four days after the United States began a campaign of airstrikes in Syria to destroy the forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Obama administration’s strategy is showing signs of backfiring and may be losing the support of some of the people it needs most to succeed.
In a pointed statement issued Friday, a group that supports moderate Syrian rebel forces said it "condemns" the U.S. bombing campaign because it hasn’t been planned in consultation with rebels on the ground, who could help direct American aircraft toward Islamic State fighters. Some rebel forces claimed that U.S.-led airstrikes have killed civilians, and they’re also accusing Barack Obama’s administration of taking its eyes off the main target — the Islamic State — to go after other militant groups that, while considered enemies of the United States, are nevertheless fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. strikes could be having an unintended effect, rebels say: propping up Assad and weakening the opposition to him and the Islamic State.
The airstrikes are happening "with absolutely no coordination with moderate opposition forces on the ground," stated the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, which represents several Syrian-American nonprofit groups in the Unites States and maintains daily communications with rebel forces. The U.S. military has no combat forces in Syria and relies heavily on footage from surveillance drones, manned aircraft, and spy satellites to track the movements of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Because the United States has no intention of deploying ground troops, the Syrian rebels have to do that job, acting as the Americans’ eyes and ears. "The only way to do that consistently is by having a network of human intelligence collectors on the ground, very close to the targets, who can tell the targeteers what the correct targets are," said Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, President Obama called moderate rebel groups that the United States plans to train and arm the "counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime." That has left rebel groups wondering why they weren’t consulted before the bombing campaign began. American strike planners and their partners in five Arab countries have launched a series of strikes at what the Pentagon says are Islamic State targets, as well as a shadowy al Qaeda group, called Khorasan, which officials say was plotting an imminent attack, possibly against commercial airliners.
Syrian rebel sources complain that U.S.-led bombing has barely dented the Islamic State’s strongholds. In the city of Raqqa, where the group has its headquarters, fighters fled in advance of the first wave of bombings early Tuesday morning, Sept. 23, and relocated to the suburbs, according to one opposition source who asked not to be identified. If Islamic State fighters blend in with civilians, it will be far more difficult for the United States to track them from the air.
One opposition supporter in contact with rebel fighters said the lack of coordination from the Pentagon may have led to an inadvertent attack on civilians. In Bidama, a small town in northern Syria, rebel forces reported Friday that missiles hit a court building and a school, injuring 11 civilians, said Mohammed Ghanem, the director of government relations for the Syrian American Council.
"It’s just chaotic because there’s zero coordination with the moderate armed opposition," Ghanem said. He added that he had yet to confirm whether the missiles were fired by the United States or any of its coalition partners, but that the area was firmly in the control of Syrian rebels and that there were no Islamic State fighters nearby or any members of the Khorasan group. Ghanem said he’d never heard of the al Qaeda linked organization until this week, when the Pentagon announced it was a target.
U.S. officials wouldn’t discuss how they devise the list of targets in Syria. "I can assure you that before any mission, every precaution is taken to ensure civilians are not harmed," said Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which is running the air campaign. "We have seen no evidence at this time to corroborate claims of civilian casualties, but we take these reports seriously and will look into this matter further." He added that based on information from military surveillance assets — such as drones — the military believes it’s hitting the right fighters. "We have high confidence in the ISIL targets we have chosen," Ryder said.
Ghanem said he’d spoken this week to several senior rebel commanders, including those who serve with groups that have been vetted by the CIA and deemed trustworthy enough to receive American training and weapons. "People I spoke with at the highest levels said, ‘We never even got a phone call’" from anyone in the U.S. government before the airstrikes began this week, Ghanem said.
The airstrikes have also aroused suspicion among rebels and Syrian civilians that the United States’ real aim isn’t to attack the Islamic State, but to go after al Qaeda-linked groups, including al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Senior administration officials deny the United States is targeting the group, which has support among some rebel groups in Syria because it’s also fighting to overthrow the Assad government.
But rebel sources in Syria report that the U.S. airstrikes still hit al-Nusra Front positions, possibly because Khorasan members were living with the group. In the past few days, various rebel groups in Syria have issued statements accusing the United States of bolstering Assad by attacking al-Nusra Front.
"All the rebel groups see right now from the U.S. is a significant effort to destroy al-Nusra, a minuscule effort to destroy ISIS, and no effort at all to destroy Assad," Harmer said. "I don’t know what the U.S. government coordinated with rebel groups; the consensus is, not very much, and the rebel response has been pretty negative. And the rebel military leadership is also frustrated that their original enemy, Assad, continues to get a hall pass from the U.S. Apparently Assad can do anything at all and never get targeted."
The U.S.-led air campaign so far has assiduously avoided targeting any Assad regime buildings, military forces, or air-defense systems. Indeed, American pilots and their Arab allies — Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — have faced virtually no Syrian military opposition, and senior Syrian leaders have all but granted permission for the strikes, saying that the United States and Syria share a common enemy in the Islamic State. The United States, for its part, insists it’s not planning any of the airstrikes with Assad.
But less than a week into the bombing, protests erupted in parts of Syria on Friday, according to Al Jazeera, which posted some footage. In one protest in the village of Taqad in Aleppo province, pro-Nusra demonstrators chanted, "No for war against rebels; the biggest criminal is Assad." In another protest in the Kafr Daryan village in Idlib, civilians held up signs saying, "Nusra Front represents me" and "Stop shelling civilians." U.S.-led airstrikes in Idlib have led to as many as two dozen civilian deaths, according to rebel sources and Syrian activists, a figure that the Pentagon hasn’t been able to confirm but hasn’t denied either.
Following the Idlib attack, another Syrian rebel group, Harakat Hazm, said in a statement, "The only beneficiary of external intervention in Syria is the Assad regime, especially in the absence of any true strategy to bring him down," according to the Los Angeles Times. It was a measure of how quickly the tide may be turning against the United States, because Harakat Hazm, which is allied with the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army, was one of the first rebel groups to receive U.S. anti-tank missiles. In essence, that made it one of America’s most trusted supposed allies in the Syrian conflict.
Any U.S. coordination with the Syrian opposition is complicated by the fact that there is no unified Syrian opposition, U.S. officials and experts say. In the fog of the country’s three-year-long civil war, there’s an ever-shifting series of alliances and splits within the opposition groups themselves. U.S. intelligence agencies have been hesitant to coordinate airstrikes with some rebels for fear they’ll actually provide the Americans with the locations of their personal enemies.
At the CIA, which has vetted most of the moderate rebels whom the United States seeks to train and arm, senior officials have long been skeptical that they can find a large number of fighters to trust and who won’t let their American-made weapons fall into terrorists’ hands. And the United States will have to field a large army. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, told reporters on Friday that 12,000 to 15,000 Syrian rebels would need to be trained for the moderate opposition force to recapture territory under the control of the Islamic State in eastern Syria. That’s a much higher number than the 5,000 rebels officials had previously said would be required. But the Syrians might still be outnumbered. The CIA estimates 30,000 people are now fighting for the Islamic State.
Harmer said that while this slow-going vetting process has frustrated some rebels, particularly those who aren’t in the program, it has ensured that "no significant U.S. weapons have fallen into the hands of" al-Nusra Front. Still, the U.S. effort overall may have failed to convince rebel forces that the Obama administration has their best interests in mind.
"We are not doing enough to destroy either ISIS or al-Nusra, let alone the Assad regime, who is the original guilty party here, and we aren’t doing enough to really support and empower the moderate rebels," Harmer said.
Kate Brannen contributed reporting.