Michael Weiss writes: For a while there, he had us going. When President Obama announced last month his long-contemplated strategy for confronting the Islamic State (ISIS), and made it clear that this would necessitate air strikes in Syria, many Syrians rejoiced at the news, believing that any intervention in their ravaged country was better than no intervention at all. Mission creep, it was hoped, would force the United States into an eventual showdown with Bashar al-Assad, a mass-murdering dictator who, as Obama was keen to reassure everyone, was not going to be a US partner in this counterterrorism coalition since he had lost all “legitimacy” through his barbarism and would therefore be negotiated out of power — once the more pressing ISIS menace was dealt with.
Except that there are growing signs that Washington has worked quietly, if indirectly, with Assad to avoid any such confrontation in the skies over Syria. US and Syrian warplanes share the same coordinates in Deir Ezzor, for instance. And as I suggested in a prior NOW column, there is evidence that US intelligence may have only discovered the “imminent” terrorist plot of the so-called Khorasan Group of Al-Qaeda from information first gathered by Syria’s mukhabarat and abettedby Tehran’s release of Khorasan’s commander, Muhsin al-Fadhl, who found his way into Idlib in the last year. (Inveigling Washington into further wedding its anti-ISIS strategy to the prerogatives of the Revolutionary Guard Corps has been a longstanding Iranian mission, one that appears to be yielding results in Iraq.) But now that the air forces of Sunni-led Arab nations are flying alongside US F-16 and F-22s, the actual US policy has come into the clear; it’s suddenly permissible to “manage expectations,” as General John Allen, the US military envoy to the coalition, put it, or revise the marketed plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. In fact, as has been proven in the last week, ISIS’s elimination in Syria is not actually an American objective at all.
According to Leon Panetta, a former US defense secretary and CIA director who has lately joined the lengthening queue of White House retirees eager to declare that their erstwhile boss doesn’t know what he’s doing, the war against ISIS might last 30 years. Pentagon officials, meanwhile, insist that the US Central Command isn’t even trying to eliminate ISIS in its main base of operations.
“The primary goal of the aerial campaign is not to save Syrian cities and towns, the U.S. officials said. Rather, the aim is to go after ISIS’ senior leadership, oil refineries and other infrastructure that would curb the terror group’s ability to operate — particularly in Iraq.”
And here is the Wall Street Journal:
“In Iraq, the air campaign is meant to help Iraqi forces beat back Islamic State fighters controlling key parts of the country. In Syria, by contrast, the airstrikes are meant to rattle Islamic State sanctuaries and disrupt their offensive in neighboring Iraq, U.S. officials said. They aren’t designed to force the group from its strongholds.”
So if these airstrikes aren’t designed to “save Syrian cities and towns,” only “rattle” ISIS in its sanctuaries, then we can extrapolate what the not-too-distant future holds. ISIS will continue to seize more Syrian cities and towns, thereby terrorizing more Syrian civilians. It will continue to wage war against nominally Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels who are already chafing at the perception that they have been seconded as jihadi slayers or cannon fodder by a cynical US government which has promised them real support for three years for the purpose of degrading and ultimately destroying the Assad regime. As former Ambassador Robert Ford noted in a New York Times op-ed, former pro-American Syrians are beginning to burn American flags and denounce these airstrikes, while Islamist factions which have fought ISIS for the last eight months, such as Ahrar al-Sham, are defecting to the latter’s camp either in a show of solidarity or out of brute necessity, since they sense that they, too, might be next on the kill-list. This means that ISIS will continue to present itself to Sunnis in Syria as the only credible alternative to Assad’s reign, in marked defiance of Obama’s ostensible goal of empowering a third-way opposition. [Continue reading…]