After being stopped in front of Kirkuk with the combination of the resistance from Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and U.S. air strikes, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has carried the fighting into Syria and has been battling with Kurdish groups in Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobane/Kobani in Kurdish, near the Turkish border, for more than a week. In the meantime, the emerging U.S.-led coalition started air strikes against ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria. Since the first U.S. bombing in early August, the number of strikes has steadily increased. Yet, the extension of the air campaign into Syria has created suspicion and anxiety, both among coalition members and the local opposition forces in Syria about the intention and game plan of the U.S.
On Sept. 23, the U.S. and five Arab countries – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar – carried out a coordinated attack on targets of ISIL and Khorasan, an al-Qaeda affiliated group, based on intelligence about an imminent attack in either Europe or the United States. The little known Khorasan group’s link with the al-Nusra Front, which is fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and thus receives support from some of the coalition forces, created unease. Several groups fighting in Syria against the regime have condemned the operation, while analysts in the U.S. have started to talk about potential cooperation with the al-Assad regime against the radical Islamic groups, which will not only include ISIL, but also al-Nusra.
While the Iraqi part of the U.S. strategy relies on the strengthening of the newly formed Iraqi government and obtaining the support of the Sunni tribes in the long run, the lack of a reliable local partner and ongoing civil war in Syria creates confusion. In Iraq, the air strikes are clearly backing Iraqi ground forces in their fight with ISIL. But in Syria, the targets seem jumbled at best.
This uncertainty has been reflected on the decisions of potential coalition members, such as the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, which are hesitant to take part in air strikes in Syria, but are already supporting the campaign in Iraq. Turkey, too, is getting ready to increase its support in the fight against ISIL after Turkish hostages were freed; yet Turkish demands to create a buffer zone and a no-fly area inside Syria to deal with the growing refugee problem, have not found a receptive ear in the U.S.
While there is no sign that the air strikes alone will undermine or even weaken ISIL in the short term, there emerged serious concern about the consolidation of the al-Assad regime by exploiting the air strikes. Indeed, filling the power vacuum in Syria is an important question for the stability of the region as a whole. The suspicion that the U.S. might go back on its strategy and engage the al-Assad regime, the lesser evil so to speak, against the bigger evil of radical al-Qaeda affiliated groups, to achieve some sort of a stability in Syria at least, is undermining the determination of various would-be coalition partners.
While the support of moderate opposition forces is essential for the current U.S. strategy in Syria, their credibility, as well as ability, are questionable. According to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. needs to train and equip up to 15,000 opposition forces to succeed on the ground. This is more than the U.S. administration’s early estimates. Who is going to train them, where and for how long are not clear yet. What’s more, whether the U.S. has committed fully with these groups against the regime is not certain. This undermines the resolve of the coalition and provides breathing space for ISIL, while the U.S. gives an image of uncertainty and indecisiveness. The clock is ticking; it is time to choose sides unequivocally.