Confronting ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: The Syrian opposition is in a rare position of power, at least internationally. In his September 10 address, President Barack Obama extended the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, into Syria. He said that the United States will lead a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. There is a wide recognition that the opposition will be key in the fight against the radical group. But the opposition does not have a strategy to seize this opportunity. And at this critical juncture Syrian rebels have even alienated some of their allies.

Until Obama’s speech, the opposition was suspicious that U.S. strikes in Syria would be carried out in collaboration with the Assad regime, despite repeated statements from Western capitals to the contrary. On Wednesday, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood rejected the international coalition against ISIS “unless the first bullet is directed at [Bashar] al-Assad’s head.” Even though the opposition’s National Coalition welcomed the American move against ISIS, the political opposition is still waiting for an invitation to play a role, rather than proactively presenting a vision for a way out for the Syrian crisis.

Away from politics, however, a fairly different situation exists among opposition fighters. Significant rebel coalitions have already been formed to help in the fight against ISIS, and preparations for the zero hour seem to be in full swing. On September 10, seven groups affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Free Syrian Army, and the Islamic Front, among them Kurdish and Arab fighters, announced a small yet symbolically significant coalition to fight ISIS in eastern Syria. On Monday, five sizable fighting groups in Idlib announced a merger, named al-Faylaq al-Khamis (The Fifth Legion), saying they would adhere to strict military discipline and use the Syrian revolutionary flag, which indicates a rejection of Islamist ideology. The Syrian Revolutionary Front, which was key to the expulsion of ISIS from much of the north earlier this year, also announced that it would send “convoys after convoys” to areas under ISIS control to defeat the jihadi group.

But even though rebels on the ground are willing and prepared to fight ISIS, the political opposition has a critical role to play. The areas tightly controlled by ISIS will require an assiduous effort to organize groups that could fill any vacuum left by ISIS as a result of the potential airstrikes. ISIS has made it much harder for armed groups from these areas, particularly Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, to regroup and make a comeback or for local forces to stage an insurrection against the jihadi group. Rebel groups from outside these areas will also find it quite difficult to navigate, much less be welcomed in, these territories. [Continue reading…]

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