Since the United States and its Arab allies initiated their first airstrikes against the “Islamic State” (ISIS) in Syria, the people of that troubled land, neighbouring countries and global observers have yet to see a clear strategy regarding the intervention. It remains uncertain how the Obama administration plans to proceed with the offensive against the group. As the Tomahawk missiles struck their ISIS targets, the question, “what happens next?” was asked around the world.
“I expect the airstrikes to continue for about one month,” said Kenan Rahmani, an Executive Board Member of the Washington-based Syrian American Council (SAC), “but the president [Obama] may decide to expand beyond that if Congress gives him authorisation to do so.”
In the same context, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced last Wednesday an additional $40 million in funding to Syria’s “moderate” rebels, who have been battling terrorism on two fronts: against ISIS and against the Assad regime. “It is the moderate opposition who have been fighting for Syria’s future,” said Kerry at UN Headquarters in New York.
Further, Obama announced earlier this month that the US will facilitate official training programmes for the Syrian opposition, which will be carried out in several Arab countries. The strategy is not new, as unofficial training has been conducted by the US for Syrian opposition fighters in Jordan for over 18 months, but the expansion and formalisation of the military training efforts are symbolic of enhanced American support for opposition groups.
“The Syrian opposition will also grow stronger and this dynamic will shift,” Kerry added. “The alternative to extremists is not Assad; it’s moderate opposition; it’s the moderate Syrians who have been fighting for freedom and dignity for far too long.”
Observers are sceptical about the role of the US military in Syria, specifically of how America will proceed after completing its offensive against ISIS. The role of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been questioned as well, in response to official training programmes and funds.
“This [arming] is still a theory until it is implemented in reality,” said Mohamed Najib Rajab, a lieutenant colonel in the FSA based in central Syria. “There are officers from all specialities who have the theoretical and practical experience to use them [the new weapons].”
Rajab noted that he does not expect to have foreign troops in Syria, as foreign countries are afraid of engaging their troops in such a conflict. “They prefer to support the local fighters, provide them with logistic and financial support, and assist them by airstrikes and long-range missiles.”
“Since the airstrikes against ISIS began, fifteen civilians have been killed, including five children,” claims Bassam Al-Ahmad, the spokesman of the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria (VDC). Al-Ahmad added that it is difficult to determine a specific number of deaths of ISIS fighters and supporters.
Regarding the deaths, the VDC released a statement warning all of the factions in the conflict, including the international alliance against ISIS, to treat civilians as neutral as per the 1949 Geneva Convention and the customary rules of international law. Furthermore, the statement called on the UN Security Council to intervene immediately to find a sustainable solution in order to stop “the random targeting of civilians”.
The Khorasan group?
The first day of the airstrikes did not come as a surprise to ISIS, which was aware of US plans for an offensive in Syria. Jabhet Al-Nusra, the wing of Al-Qaeda in Syria, on the other hand, was caught off guard when it was included among US targets. There are also unconfirmed reports that the American offensive is targeting Ahrar Al-Sham Brigades as well, a rebel Islamist group located mainly in Idlib and Aleppo.
Simultaneously, the US airstrikes definitively sought out a target in the anonymous group called “Khorasan”. The group has received no mention in the three years of the Syrian conflict, but it appeared recently in the US media in the aftermath of the airstrikes. According to American analysts reported by the Daily Beast, the Khorasan group planned to conduct attacks using “hard-to-detect explosives” on American and European airliners.
“I don’t know anyone who has heard of Khorasan in Syria,” said Rahmani. “I do not believe that Syrian fighters in Nusra were plotting any attacks against America and I do not believe that Khorasan are more dangerous than ISIS.”
Criminology: Assad vs ISIS
The strategies of the war on terrorism designate that, in the perspective of the western world, intervention will only be carried out against those who post a threat to the “West” in particular. Undeniably, ISIS is a terrorist organisation and the world should take action against it, yet the Assad regime stands untouched. Statistically, the Syrian government regime has taken more lives than ISIS and has spread terrorism widely, beyond Syria and across the region.
According to the UK-based Syrian Network for Human Rights, the number of documented-by-name civilians killed by ISIS since “April 2013” is estimated to be “831, including 137 children” compared to “124,752, including 17,139 children” killed by Assad’s forces since March 2011. With regards to death from torture, in the same periods ISIS killed “13” of its detainees under torture, while the Assad regime killed “5,644”.
The numbers account for the deaths by Assad’s forces; they do not include those killed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other factions fighting alongside the Assad regime.
While the massive and undoubtedly harmful impact of ISIS brutality and ideology should not be underestimated, it is essential to address the body that initiated the conflict and has been the greatest harm to Syria thus far.
Recently, the Syrian government made an official request for support to fight ISIS. However, the US and its Western allies have been firm in their refusal to cooperate as they have declared Assad’s to be a terrorist regime. On Tuesday, the Syrian president’s official media announced that the regime had been informed of the impending airstrikes and suggested that the US offensive against ISIS was conducted in coordination with the regime’s intelligence agencies and military.
The pro-Assad Syrian daily Al-Watan published a news report titled, “Washington and its allies are in the same ditch with the Syrian army combating terrorism.” The report begins by welcoming the “American attacks”, noting that there is official “coordination” with the Syrian government through the United Nations and Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Al Jaafari.
“Assad’s regime propaganda found this as an opportunity to make Obama’s position weaker and to give itself credibility,” added Kenan Rahmani.
The absence of a clear strategy in this war will result in unexpected advancements on the part of the US and its allies, which, regionally, may be hard to deal with.
Abdulrahman al-Masri is a Syrian freelance journalist. Follow on twitter.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.