Last week, warplanes from the United States and its partners began strikes against Islamic State positions in Syria. President Obama justified the attacks by saying that the United States would “not tolerate safe havens for terrorists,” an objective that is both correct and long overdue. However, the airstrikes are falling short in ways that could soon jeopardize this objective.
Airstrikes alone will not defeat the Islamic State. Despite nearly two months of strikes in Iraq, Islamic State fighters attacked Iraqi army checkpoints close to Baghdad last weekend, and reports this week indicate a strong Islamic State presence just a mile west of the city. Although Obama administration officials are correct that the anti-Islamic State campaign will take time, they need to accelerate and significantly modify the effort to prevent further advances toward Baghdad.
Close coordination with Syrian rebels would accomplish this. By enabling rebels to escalate ground attacks on the Islamic State’s western front, coordination would force the group to divert resources from Baghdad. And unlike the Iraqi army, moderate Syrian rebels have a proven record of rolling back Islamic State forces. But no coordination of any significance is occurring.
The Syrian rebels possess the most up-to-date intelligence on Islamic State positions, often because they can see its troop movements with their own eyes. But the United States has not availed itself of this information. Multiple coalition airstrikes appear to have been based on faulty intelligence, leading to missed targets or civilian deaths.
Initial coalition airstrikes in Syria included attacks on the Islamic State’s headquarters in Raqqah, and my contacts there reported strikes that appeared to target longtime Islamic State nerve centers. However, the group had already evacuated these buildings in anticipation of the strikes. The Syrian rebels knew where the Islamic State had gone, but because they were not consulted the strikes did not accomplish their objective.
If airstrikes were limited to Islamic State territory, failure to coordinate would have only reduced their effectiveness. But the United States has also struck targets deep inside rebel territory. Some of these attacks caused substantial civilian deaths or struck close to command centers of moderate Free Syrian Army brigades. Rebels were not consulted on these strikes either.
U.S. officials claim that strikes inside rebel territories targeted the Khorasan Group, a small, shadowy al-Qaeda branch said to have been planning an imminent attack on the United States or Europe. But none of my Syrian contacts had heard of this group. Nor have many European counterterrorism specialists. Adding to the confusion, coalition forces bombed on Monday an anti-Assad brigade with no affiliation to al-Qaeda.
Let’s look at this ambiguity from the perspective of most ordinary Syrians. They approve of Obama’s plan to back Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State. But after his “red line” chemical weapons debacle last year, most Syrians do not take Obama at his word. The president’s statements conflict with allegations from hard-liners that the United States is waging war on Sunni Islam and with a stream of Syrian regime propaganda suggesting a Western partnership with dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Without conclusive evidence, Syrians can judge only by what they see: The United States has bombed Islamic State territory and rebel territory, but never Assad. Though the United States declared war on the Islamic State, which primarily fights the rebels, the anti-Assad al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra was also bombed. On Monday, targeting was expanded to include Liwa al-Haq, which is affiliated with a coalition of 60,000 rebels called the Islamic Front.
Syrians have no way of knowing who will be targeted next, and the United States therefore risks losing its critical Syrian ground partners. The U.S.-endorsed Free Syrian Army’s general staff has requested clarification on which groups are “moderate” enough to avoid targeting. Even the Aleppo Provincial Council, Syria’s first democratic council since 1963, has condemned the strikes outside of Islamic State territory. The Obama administration should quickly take three concrete actions to remedy this problem:
First, the Free Syrian Army’s request must be answered. The United States must identify its partners and demonstrate its commitment to them with coordination that makes a difference on the ground. This would also enhance the effectiveness of U.S. airstrikes by providing targeting intelligence and ground follow-up.
Second, the United States must win back Syrian public support through transparency on civilian casualties. The United States still has not said whether it carried out an airstrike on an Islamic Front facility in Badama that killed and injured civilians last Friday. Syrians do not know whether this was a coalition or Assad attack. To regain public support, the United States must be honest about collateral damage and compensate families of victims.
Third, the United States needs to target Jabhat al-Nusra differently. Nusra has to go. It threatens Americans as an al-Qaeda branch, and its hard-line ideology conflicts with the pluralistic spirit of the Syrian revolution. But unlike the Islamic State, Nusra did not gain strength by conquering rebel territory. Rather, it leveraged its superior weapons and funding to lure Syrians desperate to stop the regime’s killing spree. For this reason, airstrikes on Nusra have stirred a backlash. Jabhat al-Nusra is best undermined through support for the moderate rebels with which the group is at odds.
Despite these difficulties, U.S. airstrikes have had important positive impacts. The Islamic State has suffered real losses, and there have been fewer civilian deaths now that Assad’s aerial monopoly is broken. But the dangers are substantial; anti-U.S. sentiment has risen in western Syria, and the Islamic State has continued to creep toward Baghdad. To preserve the viability of its strategy, the United States must complement its airstrikes with firm support, in both word and deed, to moderate anti-Islamic State Syrian rebels.
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council, a board member of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, and a fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.