Last week, an airstrike from the American-led coalition nearly hit a command-and-control facility affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the moderate rebels the Obama administration says are America’s “boots on the ground,” according to two opposition leaders. They are asking the Obama administration to please coordinate with them in the future before America bombs its only allies in Syria.
Since U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria began on Sept. 22, there has been no coordination between the U.S. military and its alleged partners on the ground, according to FSA leaders, civilian opposition leaders, and intelligence sources who have been briefed on the U.S. and allied military operation. It’s this lack of communication that led to an airstrike that hit only 200 meters from an FSA facility in the suburbs of Idlib. One source briefed on the incident said multiple FSA fighters were killed in the attack.
“Unfortunately, there is zero coordination with the Free Syrian Army. Because there is no coordination, we are seeing civilian casualties. Because there is no coordination, they are hitting empty buildings for ISIS,” Hussam Al Marie, the spokesman for the FSA in northern Syria, told The Daily Beast. “We have been getting promises that the coordination will be coming, but we have been getting promises since the beginning of this revolution and nothing has happened yet.”
The incident, which was not been previously reported, doesn’t just highlight the gap between the U.S. and its newly-endorsed allies in the moderate opposition, however. It also shows how complicated it can be to make alliances in the multi-factioned Syrian civil war. The coalition airstrike was targeting a base used by al Nusrah, the local al Qaeda affiliate. And the camp was, essentially, next door to the FSA facility. The al Qaeda fighters and the U.S-endorsed rebels were neighbors—and, at times, partners in battle against ISIS and the Bashar al-Assad regime.
“Because there is no coordination, [the U.S.-led coalition] hit an al Nusrah base in the Idlib suburbs that is only 200 meters from the Free Syrian Army,” Al Marie said.
There were 11 civilian casualties after the first day of U.S.-led airstrikes inside Syria, according to the FSA, and at least one more when the coalition struck a Shariah Court near Idlib two days ago that was under the control of al Nusrah. The U.S. government has said it cannot confirm any civilian casualties but will investigate any accidents.
“There are always civilian casualties when they are hitting al Nusrah because al Nusrah is just living among the people,” said Al Marie. “They didn’t do any real harm to ISIS, the buildings of ISIS were empty. Meanwhile, the main battle on the ground against ISIS hasn’t been supported yet. That’s the important thing, the ground battle.”
In the fight against ISIS in northern Syria, the FSA often fights alongside other rebel groups with varying levels of Islamic flavor: the Islamic Front, the Tawheed Brigade, and even the al Qaeda-linked al Nusrah Front. FSA fighters are moving around the area all the time and sometimes have to pass through al Nusrah checkpoints to get where they are going. And yet, according to the Obama administration, these moderate rebels can be trusted—despite their alliances of convenience with al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria. (On Sunday, the leader of al Nusrah made his first public statement in eight months, telling moderate rebels that his group, and not the United States, was their true partner.)
Now, in addition to the Assad regime and ISIS, they have to worry about getting killed by U.S. and coalition airstrikes on al Nusrah targets too. Already, one Syrian rebel group supported in the past by the United States condemned the aerial attacks, calling them “an attack on national sovereignty” and demanding that the West train its firepower on Assad instead. To make matters worse, some FSA leaders now say that the airstrikes are threatening to push many rebel groups—including al Nusrah—back toward the side of ISIS.
“Before there were terrorists fighting terrorists. Now, after the airstrikes, you could see them working together against a common enemy (the United States), which is not what we want to see at all,” said Al Marie.
In President Obama’s Sept. 10 speech to the nation announcing his new strategy against ISIS, the president said, “We must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to” ISIS. He then called on Congress to authorize a program to train and equip 5,000 rebels per year in Saudi Arabia, which they did. Sunday night on CBS’s 60 Minutes, the President defended his decision to avoid arming the moderate Syrian rebels for the last two years, as most of his top national security officials had recommended.
Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken said the FSA would be America’s boots on the ground in Syria and are a crucial part of the coalition strategy to defeat ISIS and then eventually work to oust Assad.
“The president has been very clear. This is going to be a long-term effort. It's going to be sustained and it's going to be more effective because we're going to be working with partners on the ground, not sending in hundreds of thousands of Americans,” he said.
But a week into the strikes, the FSA hasn’t heard anything from the Obama administration or the U.S. military about where the strikes are, how they can help make them effective, or even how to avoid getting killed by U.S. bombs and missiles. And because Obama doesn’t want American boots on the ground, there are no U.S. air controllers to guide in the strikes. Throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American military found that such personnel were essential for minimizing civilian casualties.
‘This is really dangerous,” said Al Marie. “I really don’t know what’s the strategic plan for these airstrikes, how they are doing it. I can’t believe it, our friends are doing this big thing in our country and here we are, their friends, and they won’t coordinate with us.”
The U.S.-led airstrikes have not done any significant damage to ISIS, Al Marie said, because the group moved all of their command and control, valuable weaponry, money, and even family members to new locations after Obama announced publicly the airstrikes were coming.
Another civilian Syrian opposition official told The Daily Beast that the lack of coordination was such a big problem, Syrian National Coalition President Hadi al Bahra pressed National Security Advisor Susan Rice last week in New York to set up a joint coordination center with the FSA for the operations to fight ISIS. Rice was noncommittal, the official said, but the opposition leadership is trying hard to get the Obama administration to start working more with the FSA.
“The FSA is passing on solid targeting information about ISIS and Nusrah. We don’t know if they are using it or not,” the opposition official said. “We’re hoping that the campaign will eventually transition to one of close air support based on mutual intelligence sharing.”
Major Curtis Kellogg, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told The Daily Beast he could not comment on the FSA’s allegation that the coalition had struck an al Nusrah base right next to a moderate rebel headquarters.
"As a matter of policy, we’re not going to discuss the specifics of our targeting process, coordination or intelligence, but based on our ISR capabilities and careful evaluation, we have high confidence in the ISIL and Khorasan Group targets we have chosen,” Kellogg said, using the government’s preferred acronym for ISIS and its name for a cadre of veteran al Qaeda planners.
Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Obama administration is not coordinating with the FSA because it still doesn’t believe it can trust the FSA with sensitive information about ongoing military operations. But that also means the FSA can’t capitalize after the strikes by taking over the territory that has been cleared.
“Everybody knows you can’t bomb your way out of this problem, and if your game plan is for the moderate opposition to fill up that vacuum, then it would seem it’s important the moderate rebels benefit,” he said. “We need to win the opposition over to our side and this doesn’t help that at all. And if this continues, the Assad regime will be the main party to benefit.”
By announcing that U.S. airstrikes would be paired with help for the FSA but then not delivering that help quickly or even talking to the FSA, the U.S. is putting the moderate rebels in the worst possible position and needlessly harming the effectiveness of the mission, said Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American-based organization that works with the Syrian opposition, and political director of United for a Free Syria.
“You are helping alienate the FSA from their popular support on the ground and you are risking ISIS regrouping or allowing the regime to take over these areas, which contradicts the stated policy of the president of the United States,” he said.
Last week, Moustafa’s group brought a delegation of congressmen and congressional staffers who support arming the Free Syrian Army to the Turkey-Syria border and met with leaders of over a dozen Free Syrian Army brigades in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep.
After meeting with the rebel brigade leaders, Republican lawmaker Adam Kinzinger told The Daily Beast that the U.S. must speed up the training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army brigades that have been vetted.
“There’s always going to a risk… It’s not going to be a flawless process,” he said. “There were a lot of folks begging us to confront the Assad regime or at least create a no fly zone and stop the barrel bombs.”
Smoke rises due to what activists claim was shelling from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on Maar Shamshah village, on one of the frontlines of Wadi Al-Dayf camp in the southern Idlib countryside September 14, 2014. Picture taken September 14, 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi