August was yet another bloody month for Syrians in the opposition-controlled province of Idlib, with some 200 people estimated to have been killed in heavy bombardments by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies. Yet, on 31 August, news broke that a further 40 Syrian anti-government fighters had been killed overnight, this time not at the hands of President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, but during a US strike on a training camp allegedly used by fighters linked to Al-Qaida.
The strike came just hours after a tentative ceasefire deal was agreed upon by Russia and the opposition on Saturday, in an attempt to end four months of unabated violence. Moscow slammed Washington for launching the surprise attack without informing Russia and neighbouring Turkey.
The operation, explained US Central Command, had targeted those “responsible for attacks threatening US citizens, our partners and innocent civilians. Additionally, the removal of this facility will further degrade their ability to conduct future attacks and destabilise the region.”
The strike, the second in two months, marks a significant development in Washington’s Syria policy by breaking the no-fly zone imposed by Russia. However, it also speaks of an attempt to rescue America’s stagnant position on Syria which has more or less been in place since President Donald Trump expressed his desire to withdraw US troops from the area. The US has struggled to articulate a long-term political future for areas formerly under Daesh control, and is now only able to reaffirm its commitment to resist terrorism in the region.
On 1 July, the US revealed that it had carried out a strike on Hurras Al-Deen, an Al-Qaida affiliate in north-west Syria, in its first such operation there in two years. The group was established in February 2018 and has some 1,800 fighters, including non-Syrians, and forms one of the smaller factions in the array of counter-regime forces.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) August 31, 2019
Whilst the Assad regime and Russia have frequently attempted to paint all revolutionary groups as having ongoing ties to terrorism — including the opposition stronghold’s largest player Hayaat Tahrir Al-Shaam (HTS) and civilian aid group the White Helmets — the latest strikes do not reflect the adoption of such a narrative by the US.
Since breaking with Al-Qaeda in 2017, HTS has presented itself to be Syria-focused, concerned primarily with the present conflict with the Assad regime, as opposed to global jihadi issues. It has also shown itself to be more pragmatic in coordinating with Turkey on occasion, and is now facing increased pressure to merge more formally with other groups on the ground to increase their popular support. Joint HTS operation rooms alongside the National Liberation Front, made up of former Free Syrian Army factions backed by Turkey, have also become increasingly common in the wake of government shelling in a bid to repel such attacks.
Whilst it remains to be seen if coalition strikes could escalate into a broader indiscriminate targeting of Syrian opposition groups considered a threat to US interests, this seems unlikely at present. In its 2019 report, US intelligence identified only Hurras Al-Deen as Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, to the exclusion of other groups such as HTS.
US officials have also hinted previously that only groups which plan to attack targets outside of Syria could warrant direct military targeting, suggesting that the latest strike on Hurras Al-Deen was aimed at foiling a potential escalation.
Further US involvement would also complicate relations with Russia and Turkey. Moscow has supported the ongoing bombardment of Idlib and the northern countryside of Hama, which have been targeted aggressively by the Syrian regime since April; up to 1,000 civilians have been killed, with 400,000 others displaced.
The ceasefire agreed on Saturday was broken within hours by Damascus, with heavy bombardment resuming to the south of Idlib. Over the past week, hundreds have stormed the Turkish-Syria border pleading for a humanitarian corridor to escape the violence, a request rejected by Ankara. Worsening the already dire situation with further US coalition strikes is unlikely to be tolerated by Turkey.
The precision of the latest US strikes is in sharp contrast to the uncertainty surrounding Washington’s strategy in other parts of the country. Since Trump announced that he had initiated steps to withdraw troops from Syria last year, debates have raged over the still precarious future of a war that birthed a new era in global terrorism through the creation of Daesh. Yet over the past year, the US has taken no steps to advance a political solution to the conflict, having failed to find an actor on the ground that it can back apart from the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the east.
This has allowed Russia to assert its leadership further via the Astana process, bringing together Iran and Turkey to the exclusion of Europe and the US. Although little progress has been made on that front, the illusion of dialogue has allowed Washington to be relegated to a war of words with Ankara over the support of Kurdish militants on the Turkish border.
So far, the US and Turkey have both agreed to the establishment of a safe zone with jointly-run patrols that will facilitate the return of refugees to areas previously controlled by Daesh. However, differences over the details persist; Ankara has demanded that certain areas be free of fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party terror groups, while the US wants to have full control of the zone. The resultant stalemate has been met by continued threats by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to extend Turkey’s military operation in the north of the country to the east of the River Euphrates.
The objectives of the US in Syria as stated by National Security Advisor John Bolton were an enduring defeat of Daesh; the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria; and a meaningful political settlement to the conflict. Nine months after President Trump pledged to withdraw US troops, though, little action has been taken to determine a new course that would meet those objectives. Instead, stuck between the commander-in-chief’s priorities and his advisors’ recommendations, the US has sunk further into irrelevance.
In the interim, Washington has only been able to continue its counterterrorism mission, of which the latest operation in Idlib is also indicative. Yet isolated strikes will not be sufficient; a report from the Pentagon last month found that Daesh is resurgent in the country, particularly in Al-Hol refugee camp, which houses tens of thousands of mostly civilians, the majority of them women and children.
If the US wants to fulfil at least one of its stated objectives in Syria, dreams of any troop departure are likely to remain unviable for some time.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.