The Complex

Syrian Rebels Tell Obama They’re the Key to Saving Baghdad From the Islamic State

With U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq failing to halt the advance of the Islamic State, opposition forces in neighboring Syria warn that the Obama administration risks losing the Iraqi capital of Baghdad unless Washington helps the rebels open up new fronts against the militants in both countries. A senior member of a Syrian opposition group that ...

Photo by Safin Hamed / AFP
Photo by Safin Hamed / AFP

With U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq failing to halt the advance of the Islamic State, opposition forces in neighboring Syria warn that the Obama administration risks losing the Iraqi capital of Baghdad unless Washington helps the rebels open up new fronts against the militants in both countries.

A senior member of a Syrian opposition group that maintains daily contact with Syria’s moderate opposition forces, and who has criticized the administration for not consulting with the rebels on airstrikes, now says the U.S. needs to "accelerate and significantly modify" its anti-Islamic State campaign in order "to prevent further advances toward Baghdad."

"Close coordination with Syrian rebels would accomplish this. By enabling rebels to escalate ground attacks on the Islamic State’s western front, coordination would force the group to divert resources from Baghdad," Mohammed Ghanem, the senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published online Thursday.

Ghanem is urging the U.S. to begin coordinating airstrikes in Syria by using the rebels as spotters charged with identifying specific targets. The opposition group also wants Washington to better arm and train them so they could function as a ground force capable of attacking the Islamic State’s western front. This, rebels argue, will force the Islamic State to turn its attention away from its march on Baghdad. The Islamic State has effectively eliminated the border between the two countries and regards the area as a single caliphate.

The Islamist State has encircled Baghdad in recent days. On Tuesday, fighters seized weapons and overran an army base 50 miles northwest of the capital, NBC News reported. An unnamed security source told the network that as many as 600 people might be under siege inside the base, and that some soldiers escaped before the Islamic State moved into the area.

The rebels complained last week that the U.S. wasn’t coordinating with groups that have already been vetted by the CIA and deemed trustworthy, and consequently is missing important Islamic State targets and antagonizing the very opposition forces that President Barack Obama has said are key to destroying the Islamic State. Now the rebels are increasing the political pressure on the White House to make good on its claims by arguing that opposition fighters can help save the Iraqi capital.

Whether Baghdad is really at risk of falling is a highly debatable point. The Islamic State has been trying to overrun the city since June to no avail. The Shiite-dominated capital appears, so far, to be impervious to the Sunni-extremist group’s advances, in part because tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen have made clear that they were prepared to fight to the death to defend the city. But if Baghdad were to fall, it would effectively put the Islamic State in control of Iraq and spell political disaster for the White House. That the Syrian rebels are connecting the fate of Iraq with their fight next door underscores how desperately they want help from the United States, and how unsuccessful they’ve been in securing it.

Meanwhile on Thursday, the international coalition to fight the Islamic State added another member, when lawmakers in Turkey voted to authorize the use of force against the militant group in Iraq and in Syria. But how committed the U.S. was to the fight came into question as Islamist State militants continued to threaten the Syrian city of Kobani. If it fell, the Islamist State would have a key stronghold along the border with Turkey. Since before the airstrikes began, Islamist State fighters have been moving on Kobani with captured Iraqi tanks, leading the rebels to call on the U.S. to intercede and defend the city.

After U.S.-led airstrikes began in Syria last week, rebels claimed that the bombing had barely dented the Islamic State’s strongholds there. In the city of Raqqa, where the group has its headquarters, fighters fled in advance of the first wave of bombings and relocated to the suburbs, according to an opposition source.

In his op-ed, Ghanem said that the airstrikes have targeted members of the Islamic State, but also rebel groups that are fighting to overthrow the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar Al-Assad. Notably, Ghanem said, the U.S. and its allies haven’t hit any regime targets.

"Without conclusive evidence, Syrians can judge only by what they see," Ghanem wrote, adding, "Syrians have no way of knowing who will be targeted next, and the United States therefore risks losing its critical Syrian ground partners."

The rebels have also said that the Pentagon’s failure to coordinate airstrikes with rebels on the ground has led to unnecessary civilian casualties. In Bidama, a small town in northern Syria, rebel forces reported last Friday that missiles hit a court building and a school, injuring 11 civilians.

In an interview last week, Ghanem said he’d spoken to several senior rebel commanders, including those who serve with groups that have received 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 on Monday, Sept. 22, Ghanem said.

For its part, the Pentagon says that the rebels aren’t a unified force, which has made working with them difficult. "Coordination and communication with opposition fighters on the ground is limited. This is a function of the fact that the opposition groups are not monolithic and don’t have a command and control structure," Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told Foreign Policy.

Warren said that a Defense Department plan to train and arm the rebels "will help get the moderate opposition a better organized, better equipped and better led. It will help give them the military and communication skills that they need."

Asked by reporters on Thursday whether Obama was satisfied with the level of cooperation between the U.S. military the Syrian opposition, White House Deputy Spokesman Eric Schultz declined to comment and referred questions about operations to the Pentagon.

This article has been updated. 

Gopal Ratnam contributed reporting.

 Twitter: @shaneharris

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