The Daily Beast reports: It’s the clearest signal yet that the U.S.-led military campaign in Syria is widening: American warplanes on Thursday struck at al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists who attacked two groups of Western-backed rebels — fighters that the Obama administration is counting on to battle ISIS.
In an apparently improvised effort to relieve the rebels and prevent the loss of more of their strongholds close to the Turkish border, the U.S. bombed positions of Jabhat al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syria branch. It was a remarkable turnaround, because previously the administration had said it was avoiding attacks on the group, which used to occasionally fight alongside the American-supported rebels.
But it’s a turnaround the White House should have seen coming. In meetings of senior Obama administration officials before the first airstrikes began in Syria on Sept. 22, which hit both ISIS and al Qaeda positions, U.S. intelligence officials warned that any additional American attacks against al Nusra could drive a wedge between the group and their erstwhile allies in the American-backed, moderate opposition.
The U.S. intelligence community’s fear, according to individuals involved in the discussions, was that hitting al Nusra could draw a giant target on the rebels’ backs — which is precisely what appears to have happened. In the initial round of airstrikes in late September, the U.S. struck targets occupied both by al Nusra and a third group, an al Qaeda unit known Khorasan that U.S. intelligence agencies believed was plotting attacks against commercial airliners. Khorasan may have been the target, but Nusra was hit, too, and the impression on the ground was that the U.S. had meant to go after al Nusra all along. (Some Syrian rebel groups maintain that the Americans invented Khorasan as a pretext for the attack.) Soon after, al Nusra turned on U.S.-backed rebels, labeling them in official statements last week as “corrupt” lackeys of the Obama administration.
The administration now finds itself in the very position it had hoped to avoid, fighting a broader war against al Nusra forces and risking further alienation of Syrian civilians.
“The goal of the airstrikes has evolved from combatting ISIS in Iraq to combating ISIS and Al Nusra in Syria, because they pose an increasing threat to the opposition,” said a former U.S. official.
It’s those rebel forces that the Obama administration wanted to train and equip to help destroy ISIS. And it’s those forces that the U.S. military is now trying to save with these latest bombing raids against al Nusra.
“If the U.S. attacks Nusra without attacking Assad, all the average Syrian sees is that the U.S. is enabling, emboldening, and strengthening the Assad regime,” said Christopher Harmer, a former Navy officer and an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, which monitors developments in Syria. “It’s not that the Syrian people love Nusra; it’s that Nusra has been in the fight against Assad, and the U.S. has looked for every excuse to stay out of the fight against Assad.” [Continue reading…]