Conflicting policies erode US standing in W Asia

Conflicting policies erode US standing in W Asia

The US and Syrian warplanes screamed over the Syrian city of Raqqa in separate raids this week, ostensibly against the same target, the Islamic State militants in control there. In the first raid, US warplanes hit an Islamic State building with no report of civilian casualties. On Tuesday last, Syrian jets struck 10 times, killing scores of civilians, according to residents and IS videos.

The back-to-back strikes, coming just days after President Bashar Assad of Syria declared that the West needed to side with him in “real and sincere” cooperation to defeat the extremist group, infuriated Syrians who oppose both Assad and the IS. They see US jets sharing the skies with the Syrians but doing nothing to stop them from indiscriminately bombing rebellious neighbourhoods. They conclude, increasingly, that the Obama administration is siding with Assad, that by training US firepower solely on the IS, it is aiding a president whose ouster is still, at least officially, a US goal.

Their dismay reflects a broader sense on all sides that President Barack Obama’s policies on Syria and the IS remain contradictory, and the longer the fight goes on without the policies being resolved, the more damage is being done to America’s standing in the region. More than two months after the campaign against the IS plunged the US into direct military involvement in Syria, something Obama had long avoided, the group has held its strongholds there and even expanded its reach. That has called into question basic assumptions of US strategy.

One is that the US can defeat the IS without taking sides in Syria’s civil war. Another is that it can drive the group out of Iraq while merely diminishing and containing it in Syria, pursuing different approaches on each side of a porous border that the terror group seeks to erase. “The fundamental disconnects in US strategy have been exposed and amplified” as IS militants have advanced in central Syria in recent weeks, said Emile Hokayem, a Syria analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Like Assad’s opponents, he contends that extremists cannot be defeated without ending decades of harsh Assad family rule and empowering the disenfranchised Sunni Muslims who drive the insurgency. Obama has sought to treat Syria as a separate problem and concentrate on Iraq, where he sees more compelling US interests - if only the political need to salvage the legacy of US deaths there. But most analysts say the two conflicts are inextricable.

In Iraq, the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, seems to have reached the limits of its expansion as it bumps up against areas without a Sunni Arab majority and Iraqi and Kurdish forces make some gains. But driving it out entirely is another matter, particularly if it can rely on a rear base in Syria, where Hokayem said it could still expand in majority-Sunni areas.

In eastern Syria, IS fighters easily cross the Iraqi border. Assad, focused on holding Syria’s main cities in the west, is unlikely to bring the area under control soon. Last week, the IS said it was setting clocks in Raqqa ahead one hour to match Iraqi time. Inside and outside Syria,a growing refrain from Assad’s supportersand opponents alike is that US policy makes little sense - that by trying to avoid taking sides, the United States is neither having its cake nor eating it.Supporters of Assad say that the United States should ally with him and his main backer, Iran. They note that Iran’s proxies have already worked indirectly with U.S.-backed forces to fight ISIS in Iraq and that, in Syria, those forces appear far better organised than Obama’s putative allies, mainstream Syrian insurgents opposed to the IS.

But in Syria, where more than 1,50,000 people have died in three years of war, such cooperation would put the US in the awkward position of siding with a government that opponents say has killed many times more Syrians than has the IS. “For years they are killing people, and they didn’t hurt him,” Amjad Hariri, 31, a Syrian refugee in a ramshackle Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, said of Assad. “They only went after ISIS.”

Many of Assad’s opponents see themselves as stranded between two violent oppressors, the government and the IS. Others who “could have been peeled off,” Hokayem said, are now embracing the militants as they lose hope of US action against Assad, whom they see as “a greater threat.” Syrian government warplanes, as well as barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, kill the very fighters that Obama hopes to recruit. Many of those Syrian insurgents say that only by attacking or curbing Assad’s military can the US win them to its side against the extremists.But there is no guarantee that would work. Anti-Assad insurgents might well see fighting the Islamic State as a detour, especially if US pressure offered new chances to topple the president. Yet US policy is not to oust Assad precipitously, risking an extremist takeover, but to push him to a political settlement.

Fighting mortal enemy

If the United States attacked Syrian forces it could risk killing fighters from Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militia that has fought effectively on Assad’s side. While Hezbollah and the United States, bitter enemies over Israel, are highly unlikely to cooperate openly, the group has declared the IS a mortal enemy and worked with the US-aided Lebanese Army against extremists from Syria.
At the same time, peeling off fighters from IS to join relatively moderate rebel groups is difficult, particularly while a US programme to train and equip insurgents is still in its infancy, said a Syrian who abandoned another rebel group for IS because it was better armed and financed. Later, disillusioned, he began informing on the group to Western officials.

Recently, he said, he contacted an opposition leader and said fighters were ready to leave the Islamic State. “His reply? 'Do they have money, or are they broke?'” the informant recalled, asking that his name be withheld for safety and adding, “Sometimes I hate my life.”

Wissam Tarif, a Lebanese activist who aids Syrian civic groups, said that airstrikes against extremists were useless without a war of ideas.

“You kill 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 - they will recruit more and more,” he said. “The U.S. is fighting the wrong battle. It needs to fight to win the hearts of the Syrian people. They need to feel that there is someone out there who is a superpower who really cares.”

That, he said, requires a laboratory to set up civil, non-Islamist rule, perhaps in a buffer zone internationally protected from airstrikes, something the United States has resisted.

Many Syrians are stuck in the middle. Umm Firas, who lost two sons working to depose Assad, fears losing another to army bombardments and insurgent infighting that the U.S. air attacks have done nothing to stop. She fears the Islamic State will soon penetrate her district on the outskirts of Damascus.

Abu Hamza, who commands a small, local insurgent group in northern Syria, waited in vain for Western help. Now, he said via Skype, he is close to despair, “living like a hobo and starving” while an Islamic State stranger runs his area. “I feel this country is no longer mine,” he said.

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