U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, even if they extend into Syria as several Obama administration officials are signaling, don’t have a chance of destroying the terror group, moderate political and rebel leaders inside the country are cautioning. They have told The Daily Beast that air strikes will only make things worse unless there’s a coordinated plan to defeat ISIS.
For the Free Syrian Army, the Obama administration’s recent bluster about possibly using U.S. military force to strike ISIS inside Syria is too little, too late. On the one hand, moderate rebels say they can’t prepare for U.S. military intervention in Syria because they don’t have confidence President Obama will make good on his threat. On the other hand, if Obama does expand the U.S. air war against ISIS into Syria without a real plan to combat it on the ground, the American intervention will do more harm than good.
“Airstrikes against ISIS inside Syria will not be helpful. Airstrikes will not get rid of ISIS. Airstrikes are like just tickling ISIS,” Hussam Al Marie, the spokesman for the FSA in northern Syria, told The Daily Beast. “ISIS is not a real state that you can attack and destroy; they are thugs who are spread all over the east of Syria in the desert. And when they are in the cities, they are using civilian buildings. So airstrikes will not be enough to get rid of these terrorists and at the same time, they might hit civilians. That’s the problem.”
Several leaders and representatives of the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Military Council, and the Syrian Opposition Coalition told The Daily Beast in a series of interviews that the Western powers’ support for the fight against ISIS has been ad hoc, disjointed, and unenthusiastic ever since the FSA and ISIS began fighting in earnest at the beginning of this year. As a result, ISIS got stronger and the FSA was left weak and fractured.
Led by the United States, international military operations coordination cells in Turkey and Jordan have given meager and inconsistent support to FSA brigades fighting ISIS all over northern and eastern Syria, leaving the moderate rebels outmanned and outgunned all year. Meanwhile, ISIS amassed resources, money, and heavy weapons brought back as spoils from their military victories in Iraq.
Now, following the murder of American journalist James Foley in Syria, the United States and European countries are scrambling to play catch-up and figure out a strategy to disrupt and then somehow defeat ISIS. Two FSA leaders said that in the past week, with Foley dead and the city of Aleppo about to fall, the West has been calling on the FSA to fight ISIS and again holding out the prospect of more robust international support, including U.S. airstrikes.
“If you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you, wherever you are,” Deputy National Security Adviser for Communications Ben Rhodes said Friday. “We’re actively considering what’s going to be necessary to deal with that threat, and we’re not going to be restricted by borders.”
But the FSA has heard this tune before, and its leaders are skeptical that the American cavalry is on the way or that it will do any good.
“The ISIS killing of James Foley and the threatening of the other American journalists reflects that America didn’t pay much attention to the threat and growth of ISIS inside Syria,” said Iyad Shamsi, the commander of the FSA Eastern Front, in an interview. “We were very clear that we wanted to cooperate with the Americans. They didn’t listen. They paid a price.”
Shamsi led the FSA brigade in the Syrian city of Der al Zour, the largest city on the Syria-Iraq border. ISIS took over the city in July, after months of desperate warnings from the FSA to Western countries went unanswered. Now Shamsi and other FSA leaders are warning their Western contacts not to repeat that mistake in Aleppo, the biggest front against ISIS now.
“Since a week ago, now we are getting a lot of communication from Western powers saying, ‘What can we do to help you against ISIS?’ They ask us go to fight ISIS and say ‘We will support you,’” he said. “From our experience we can see that when ISIS gets near the Turkish border, they are very serious. Whenever the fighting moves eastward toward the Iraqi border, they are not serious at all.”
FSA forces are nearly surrounded in Aleppo, squeezed by ISIS in the north and the regime in the south. If ISIS is able to cut off Aleppo’s access to the Turkish border, Syria’s second-largest city will be cut off from humanitarian aid and the moderate rebels will lose one of their most important links to vital supplies.
“ISIS is attempting to retake Aleppo, and the FSA is locked in a desperate battle against them,” said Oubai Shahbandar, spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Washington. “If ISIS succeeds, it’s going to significantly endanger humanitarian aid and you’re going to see more atrocities, and you will absolutely see more kidnappings.”
Early this year, when ISIS first threatened to take over northern Aleppo, the international powers through the coordination center in Turkey sent small arms and ammunition to the FSA, which pushed back ISIS. The FSA even liberated an ISIS prison inside the children’s hospital and freed 30 civilians, including two Syrian journalists.
But when the FSA then took the fight to other parts of Syria, including near Raqqa, where ISIS has its stronghold, the flow of military aid to the moderate rebels just stopped. This time around, small arms won’t be enough: ISIS now has heavy weapons and heavy armor. To be sure, the FSA has been asking for advanced weapons for years to fight the regime, but now its leaders say they need them to combat ISIS, as well.
“The FSA has been fighting against ISIS since the beginning of this year,” said Al Marie. “We continue to fight them. The problem now is that they came back to the fight with sophisticated weapons, weapons they stole from the Americans. We are losing our brave fighters on the front against ISIS. We’re just asking the West for some cooperation, some support to be able to fight these monsters and free our lands with our hands. That’s what we want.”
While Obama administration officials often talk about the lack of good intelligence about ISIS, the FSA says it has lots of information about ISIS, including about its foreign fighters and foreign hostages. The United States didn’t consult with the FSA before launching the unsuccessful July raid to free Foley. But if the Obama administration wants to find the other Western hostages, it might consider working with the FSA, Al Marie said. For example, he added, many highly valuable Western hostages are held in an ISIS prison beneath a dam near Raqqa.
“Working with the FSA is always better. We are Syrians, we know how and where and when to move in this country,” said Al Marie. “We live on this land. We know it. We know its geography, its tribes, its people. We are the most capable people to identify where the foreign fighters are. But we need support.”
For members of the Syrian opposition in Washington, America’s policy to fight ISIS in Syria has to consist of much more than helping the FSA; the opposition is calling on Washington to do more to support civil society in Syria and combat ISIS’s ideology as well as its military prowess.
“If the United States is serious about fighting ISIS, and not just a policy of containment, it will require a robust strategy in Syria,” said Bassam Barabandi, a Syrian opposition activist at People Demand Change, an American NGO.
But the moderate rebels are so disillusioned with the Obama administration that they are not counting on Obama to change his policy of non-intervention any time soon. Last month, Obama said in an interview that the entire idea the Syrian rebel army could defeat the Syrian regime was a “fantasy.”
“We are disappointed,” said Al Marie. “We have lost a lot in this revolution. More than 190,000 people were killed in this revolution and no one cared. Now they want to intervene in Syria because of one American killed. Obama said, ‘We are helping the Iraqis help themselves.’ What about the Syrian people, who have been trying to help themselves for more than three years? We are still waiting, we are hoping someone will hear our voices, someone will recognize our right to freedom, justice, and dignity.”