By Brooklyn Middleton
25 September 2014
The unprecedented cooperation between Arab nations and the United States on degrading the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) presents a renewed opportunity for engaging and empowering the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
President Barack Obama’s anti-ISIS campaign in both Iraq and Syria has been strengthened greatly by the participation of Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But with the U.S. and Arab nations highly unlikely to deploy ground troops, any progress made against ISIS in Syria must be sustained by the same FSA rebels the U.S. has greatly ignored.
To guarantee success against ISIS, the lukewarm approach to dealing with the Syrian opposition must finally come to an end. Moreover, as strikes continue against Islamist factions, serious efforts must also be made to degrade the Syrian regime – equally as evil and as much as a security threat as ISIS.
As coalition forces continue attacking both ISIS and al-Nusra positions, Bashar al-Assad’s military stands to seriously benefit; this would be disastrous for long-term security. Assad has long proven his lack of commitment to striking ISIS and this is unlikely to change after the coalition’s aerial assaults end.
Committed To Defeating ISIS
Publicly, the U.S. remains committed to defeating ISIS without aligning with Assad. Secretary of State John Kerry adamantly ruled out any alliance with the Syrian regime, recently calling again for Assad’s removal, stating, “the right to lead a country does not come from torture, nor barrel bombs, nor Scud missiles.”
Yet, despite anti-Assad statements made during press conferences by U.S. officials, if no comprehensive action is taken against his regime then this commitment means very little.
On the ground, it would be difficult to deny that strikes against factions battling Assad without providing a boost to the moderate rebels also fighting him would indeed be advantageous for the regime. Meanwhile, Damascus – hell bent on saving face as six nations conduct strikes against factions the Syrian regime has failed to target in any significant way– has even publicly applauded the attacks. One government minister noted that the U.S. and coalition strikes were “proceeding in the right direction in terms of informing the Syrian government and by not targeting Syrian military installations.” A truly damning statement that underscores the serious risk of coalition strikes ultimately benefitting the same regime that massacred hundreds of thousands. But a serious boost to the Assad regime from the U.S. at this point would not just be morally revolting but also counterproductive; as Syria publicly tries to look like a partner against terrorism, there is one glaring point with serious security implications that must not be overlooked. The fact that the coalition forces were able to gather and analyze intelligence of ISIS and al-Nusra Front positions and strike them accordingly - but the Assad regime was not - is far from coincidental. Assad’s strategy for staying in power has been predicated on the rise of ISIS and the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front. IT seems that in order for Assad’s regime to survive, so must ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.
Arming the FSA
Thus, without seriously arming and aiding the FSA, any progress made against these groups is likely to be short lived once coalition forces halt their attacks. The only way the U.S. and Arab states can maintain the sure to be tenuous gains made against ISIS is to empower rebels already on the ground. Saudi Arabia’s serious efforts to train moderate rebels to battle both ISIS and the Syrian military must be backed entirely. At the same time, the FSA should be made a key player in the already formed coalition against ISIS. This will ultimately be the party shouldering the responsibility for combating ISIS.
On the first evening of coalition strikes, Syrian opposition President Hadi al-Bahra stated: “Tonight, the international community has joined our fight against ISIS in Syria.” His welcoming of this development, however, is likely to be short lived if the U.S. led-coalition fails to seize yet another window of opportunity to seriously engage the FSA.
Brooklyn Middleton is an American Political and Security Risk Analyst reporting from Israel. Her work has appeared in Turkish and Israeli publications including The Times of Israel and Hürriyet Daily News. She has previously written about U.S. President Obama's policy in Syria as well as the emerging geopolitical threats Israel faces as it pursues its energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. She is currently researching Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence on Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant groups to complete her MA in Middle Eastern Studies.