Obama’s self-unravelling strategy in Syria

President Obama finally unveiled his much awaited “strategy” to deal with the challenge of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIL in US government-speak) in an address to the nation on 10 September (although much of it was foreshadowed at a press conference two weeks earlier).

This strategy comprises two prongs – air attacks on ISIS and its bases by the US and international partners, and support for local forces who can carry the fight to ISIS on the ground The principal new element in the speech was an indication, for the first time, that the US was prepared to conduct air operations against ISIS in Syria without the cooperation of the Syrian government: “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”

The ground elements of the Obama plan are to be provided by the Iraqi army (restructured to scale-back its sectarian character and retrained to reduce its habit of disintegration), Iraqi Kurdish forces, and by a specially constituted force of 5000 “moderate rebels” in Syria (for which purpose the administration has secured a $500 million authorization from Congress

Accordingly, the US stepped up its air attacks on ISIS in Iraq starting on 16 September and on the 22nd launched its first attacks against targets in Syria.

The package of attacks delivered across Syria on the night of 22 September displayed a number of peculiar features. The most striking is that one-third of them were not directed at ISIS at all, but at the Syrian opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN), one of ISIS’ most important opponents. (According to the US Department of Defence 22 separate points were struck –the US and its allies struck 14 ISIS targets, and the US alone hit 8 targets linked to JaN.) There had been no mention of JaN in previous statements of administration intentions.

The attack on al-Nusra, a group linked to al-Qaeda, was carried out on the grounds that they were allegedly harbouring an al-Qaeda team called Khorasan who were purportedly planning attacks on the west. The estimated death toll was 150 ISIS dead, 70 Jabhat al-Nusra fighters killed; plus at least a dozen civilian deaths in the village of Kafr Daryan.

A second surprising feature of the attacks was the choice of ISIS targets. At this point ISIS was in the process of mounting a major assault on the Kurdish-majority city of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab in Arabic) provoking a mass exodus of refugees to Turkey. But Kobane hardly featured at all in the first rounds of US operations, which were heavily centred on Raqqa city, despite widespread reports that ISIS had evacuated its combatants from the city. The main focus of the US attacks was on destroying the complex of public buildings where ISIS had established its headquarters. The US raids thus seem to have been directed more at achieving symbolic objectives than practical ones. They were a display of America power rather than an attempt to achieve a real military objective, like the relief of Kobane.

Let’s look at these two features of the more closely.

“Bring me the head of Jabhat al-Nusra”

The events of 9/11 cast a long shadow over American politics and American calculations. As a result no American politician or policy maker dares to make an objective appraisal of the Jabhat al Nusra (JaN) group, because of its “al Qaeda” tag. The US administration has waged a long campaign against JaN – the state department added them to their terrorist list in December 2012, and the United States has frequently sought to drive a wedge between them JaN and the rest of the Syrian opposition, often with little success (although some groups of opposition fighters have followed up offers of US assistance by distancing themselves from JaN.)

I would just note here that, JaN, despite its al-Qaeda roots and allegiances, has moved in a very different direction to ISIS, becoming an important component of the anti-ISIS coalition, often at considerable loss to itself – something like half of Jabhat al-Nusra’s ranks defected to ISIS, including most of its foreign fighters, when ISIS was formed in May/June 2013.

Over the last year, JaN has made a series of public gestures designed to reassure anyone watching of its intentions. For example, when it took control of Raqqa in April 2013 (prior to a very different regime being imposed by ISIS in June) it placed the local Christian church under protection, and while it counselled the local population to follow its strict interpretation of Islamic law, it did not attempt to force them to conform. This has largely been its style of operation in Sunni communities (although it remains capable of brutal conduct towards groups it regards as “apostates” like the Alawites.)

Since that time there have been a series of similar gestures, including their responding to the ISIS beheading of Stephen Foley by releasing Peter Theo Curtis, a journalist in their custody, and their decision to unconditionally release the 24 Fijian peacekeepers they had captured two weeks previously.

If JaN were an individual jihadist undertaking counselling in a “deradicalisation” programme it would be regarded as very promising: still thinking within a global jihadist mindset and discourse, but departing from that framework in many of its actions and entering into relationships with groups who do not share these views (one of the principle accusations ISIS has levelled against JaN). We also need to take into account the fact that the ranks of Jabhat al Nusra have undergone a major renewal over the last year as their most extreme members left to be replaced by new recruits, many of whom were drawn to the organisation by its reputation for discipline and probity, and it’s better level of equipment, rather than any profound ideological affinity.

How has the US government responded to this evolution of JaN? By demonising them and treating them as a pawns in international bargaining. The equivalent of putting our promising individual jihadist into an orange jumpsuit and shipping him off to Guantanamo.

The main expression of this was the drafting of Security Council Resolution 2170, prescribing international sanctions against “terrorist” organisations in the region. In this text JaN is treated as indistinguishable from ISIS:

Reiterating its condemnation of ISIL, ANF and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaida for ongoing and multiple criminal terrorist acts aimed at causing the deaths of civilians and other victims, destruction of property and of cultural and religious sites, and greatly undermining stability [emphasis added; ANF = Jabhat al-Nusra]

The reason for this is not hard to guess – It was the price the US, quite readily, paid to secure Russian support for the resolution. It’s also likely that it featured in indirect negotiations with the Asad regime to secure their highly muted objection to an operation they had previously opposed vociferously. The paen to “stability” in UNSC 2170 has allowed the regime to harness the resolution and the US operation to its own discourse. In the words of Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad:

The forces of the so-called ‘international alliance for combating terrorism’ are currently sending their warplanes to Syria and Iraq to launch strikes on the positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra as they finally admitted that the “revolutionists” as they call them, are in fact terrorists

The abandonment of Kobane

By 22 September ISIS forces were deployed around Kobane with their artillery emplacements shelling the city. This looked like the obvious trigger for US operations in Syria and provided ready ISIS targets. But the US did not get around to attacking ISIS emplacements around Kobane until day 5 of their operations (26 September)  and even then failed take out all the ISIS artillery. As of Sunday (28 september)  Kobane was  still under sustained attack by ISIS forces, as these journalists on the spot reported:

I am standing on turkish side of #Kobane watching city shelled by ISIS. Its like watching a war movie. But now shells real, caualities real. — Jenan Moussa  September 28, 2014

Many Kurdish groups (and the Washington Post) believe that this hesitancy to defend Kobane stems from the fact that the defence of the city is being led by the Syrian Kurdish YPG forces, connected to the Turkish-Kurd PKK, another group on the US’s “terrorist” list and one anathemised by Turkey.

The self-unravelling of US policy

These contorted manoeuvres by the United States are already leading towards a major crisis of US policy. Several Syrian opposition groups, including some tipped to play a key role in its force of “moderates”, are voicing opposition to the way in which the air attacks are being conducted. And it has managed to alienate itself from what is by far the most effective of the Kurdish fighting forces.

What Next?

It was obvious that an attack on ISIS would be to the advantage of the Syrian regime – at the very least it needed counter-balancing by significant measures to assist the opposition. But there is no sign of the US delivering that in the near future. On the contrary, the US has handed Asad a further military and political bonus by attacking Jabhat al-Nusra. Just what the consequences of this will be remains to be seen. There is a danger that the US has become a recruiting sergeant for ISIS – there are reports of JaN fighters crossing over to ISIS in the wake of the bombings (although press reports of a more extensive realignment look like scaremongering). But while the combined attacks on JaN and ISIS provide a significant military and political boost to the regime, its decaying military machine may not be in a position to take advantage of it. And there is some evidence that the presence of US military aircraft in Syrian airspace could be inhibiting the Syrian airforce’s capacity to conduct operations in parts of the country. So the game is still very much up for grabs.

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