The New York Times reports: President Obama said the American-led airstrikes in Syria were intended to punish the terror organizations that threatened the United States — but would do nothing to aid President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is at war with the same groups.
But on the third day of strikes, it was increasingly uncertain whether the United States could maintain that delicate balance.
A Syrian diplomat crowed to a pro-government newspaper that “the U.S. military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals, in a war on terrorism inside Syria.” And in New York, the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in an interview that he had delivered a private message to Mr. Assad on behalf of Washington, reassuring him that the Syrian government was not the target of American-led airstrikes.
The confident statements by Syrian leaders and their allies showed how difficult it already is for Mr. Obama to go after terrorists operating out of Syria without getting dragged more deeply into that nation’s three-and-a-half-year-old civil war. Indeed, the American strikes have provided some political cover for Mr. Assad, as pro-government Syrians have become increasingly, even publicly, angry at his inability to defeat the militants.
On the other side, Mr. Obama’s Persian Gulf allies, whom he has pointed to as crucial to the credibility of the air campaign, have expressed displeasure with the United States’ reluctance to go after Mr. Assad directly. For years, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pressed Washington to join the fight to oust the Syrian president.
And for years, the United States has demurred.
“We need to create an army to fight the terrorists, but we also have to fight the regime,” Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, emir of Qatar, said Thursday in an interview with New York Times editors. “We have to do both.”
Mr. Obama told the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday that the United States would work with its allies to roll back the Islamic State through military action and support for moderate rebels. But he added, “The only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political: an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of creed.”
Yet as the Syrian conflict transformed from peaceful, popular calls for change to a bloody unraveling of the nation, it also became a proxy battlefield for regional and global interests. Iran and Russia sided with Mr. Assad. Arab Gulf nations sided with the rebels, though not always with the same rebels. The United States called for Mr. Assad to go, but never fully engaged.
The rise of the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS, prompted Mr. Obama to jump in, but under the auspices of an antiterrorism campaign. The United States was not taking sides in the civil war, or at least it did not intend to. But the minute it entered the battlefield, it inevitably muddled its standing in Syria and across the Middle East, analysts and experts in the region said.
When American attacks, for example, killed militants with the Nusra Front, a group linked to Al Qaeda, it angered some of the same Syrian insurgents who Mr. Obama has said will help make up a ground force against the Islamic State.
Some of the groups that had said they would support the United States’ mission have now issued statements condemning the American strikes on the Qaeda-linked militants. Those groups have also expressed concern that by making the Islamic State its priority, the United States has acknowledged that it does not seek to unseat Mr. Assad.
Conversely, supporters of the Syrian government say hitting the Nusra Front is proof that the United States has switched sides.
“Of course coordination exists,” said a pro-government Syrian journalist speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, who had criticized the prospect of the strikes but turned practically jubilant once they began. “How else do you explain the strikes on Nusra?” [Continue reading…]
Even if the U.S. is not officially coordinating its operations with the Syrian government, Iraqi National Security Advisor Faleh al-Fayyad is already viewed as serving as an intermediary between Damascus and Washington.
What was initially presented as a military operation to degrade and destroy ISIS, suddenly broadened in scope this week when it included strikes on Jabhat al Nusra. Given that the Obama administration refuses to refer to Nusra by its real name and has instead adopted the fictitious label the “Khorasan Group” in reference to a Nusra unit, it’s hardly surprising that the whole operation even after almost two months still has no official name.
The Pentagon has a page on its website called “Targeted Operations Against ISIL Terrorists” — a description of the operation which, even if it lacks the Marvel Comics-style hyperbolic language that the U.S. military favors in its choice of names, was until this week fairly accurate. But since Nusra got rolled onto the target list, it’s started to look more like Targeted Operations Against Assad’s Worst Enemies.
No surprise then that, at least so far, Assad likes the way the war is proceeding.
Obama has been described as a “realist” who “feels bad about it.”
But Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University professor and terrorism analyst, is the kind of realist willing to assert without apology that U.S. policy should be guided solely by self interest and thus not preclude a working relationship with the Syrian dictator:
“I know of no one who says that Assad ever posed a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. I’ve seen no evidence to ever suggest that, going back to his father. It makes obvious sense in my mind, if the U.S. is going to side with the militants or with Assad, for us to side with Assad.
“The big objection to that is a normative one. People are appalled by the suggestion of the US working with a dictator who’s massacred so many of his people. And yet Assad poses a threat to his own population, not to ours.
“I think there may be an opportunity for the US to work with Assad against ISIS.”
So, given that currently the U.S. appears to have a free hand conducting military operations inside Syria — the Syrian government has raised few objections — are we to imagine that Obama and Assad have formed some kind of secret alliance?
Probably not, but if America’s actions so clearly serve Assad’s interests why would the Syrian leader need a more formal arrangement?