On August 7th, 2014, President Obama announced that the US military would be joining a broad coalition of Western and Arab nations with the specific intent to stop the advance of the Salafi Jihadi militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While the US military has been involved in Iraq off and on over the past decade, this would be the first time that US bombs would be dropped in Syria. About a year ago, the Obama administration was inches away from launching airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria, but backed off at the last minute when a diplomatic agreement was reached with the assistance of Russia to rid Syria of chemical weapons—a “red line” for the Obama administration. Despite the lack of military action against the Syrian regime, the US government has continued to support “moderate” Syrian rebels fighting the regime.
The clear target of the anti-ISIS coalition is the aforementioned Islamic State group. However, the US has begun quietly targeting other groups. In early November, reports were released that US airstrikes had targeted the al-Qaeda linked group Jabhat al-Nusra in northwestern Syria. Back in April 2013, long before the international war against ISIS began, the head of the then Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra had been a branch of ISI in Syria, and the two groups would now become one group—the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. However, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, the leader of al-Nusra, rejected the merger, claiming he had not been consulted and confirmed his allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. After months of tension between the two groups following the proposed merger, al-Qaeda officially broke ties with ISIS in early February 2014, claiming that ISIS “is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group…does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions.” Following this announcement, open war broke out between al-Nusra and ISIS factions, culminating in an ISIS offensive in Syria’s al-Zor province that left hundreds of fighters from both groups dead.
In addition to launching strikes against al-Nusra, the US military has also conducted air strikes against the Khorasan group in Syria, another al-Qaeda affiliate that very little is known about. The strikes against Khorasan began in September 2014, and have continued into November, with US officials justifying the strikes by claiming that the group was involved in planning “imminent” attacks against the West and the US.
While both Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan are designated terrorist groups (although more moderate than ISIS) and part of the al-Qaeda network, the original strategy of defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria made no mention of combatting al-Qaeda and ISIS simultaneously. The two groups, at least for the moment, are sworn enemies and compete with each other for control of land and control of the broader Syria rebellion against the Assad regime. Trying to eliminate two major players, and two enemies, in the Syrian civil war could prove dangerous and counter productive to US led efforts. There have been reports of al-Nusra and ISIS co-operating in order to take on larger (and common) enemies, like the Syrian regime, or the US backed anti-ISIS coalition. While both groups are dangerous on their own, the two of them combined could pose an unprecedented threat to the future of the fragile region. Although the two groups still seem to be in opposition to each other, continued air strikes on both groups could lead to a reunion against a greater enemy.
The other often-ignored variable in this equation is the effect of US airstrikes on the beleaguered Syrian regime. The US has pretty much abandoned hopes of arming moderate rebels to fight Assad’s forces, as this has proven problematic and unsuccessful in the past. The US will also not engage in direct warfare against the Assad regime, in efforts to prevent US troops from being involved in another war in the Middle East. Despite the lack of action, the US still condemns the Assad regime and believes it needs to be deposed. However, it seems that while the US has been focused on defeating ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, the regime’s forces have been steadily regaining territory and strength. As the US bombs the two most powerful enemies of the Syrian regime, are they inadvertently helping Assad regain control of his country? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be affirmative. The Obama administration is currently targeting what it sees as the greater of two evils in Syria, but in order to ensure that Syria does not fall back into the hands of the authoritarian Baath regime, new policies to counteract the gains made by the regime at the expense of ISIS must be enacted.