Obama uses war on ISIS to overthrow Syria's Assad

fsaOne of the things that has intrigued me about the Obama administration’s alleged strategy to combat ISIS is the degree to which it focuses on Syria. Not only are airstrikes within Syria contemplated but another attempt will be made by the administration to arm the Syrian opposition forces. To me this seems counterintuitive.

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Not only is he heartland of ISIS in Iraq but expanding our efforts into Syria diffuses those efforts while making building a coalition much more difficult. For instance, Turkey, which unlike Saudi Arabia does have an extensive frontier with Iraq and Syria, is reluctant to take part in operations to reduce ISIS in Syria because it wants to be rid of Assad. Fighting ISIS in Syria requires the United States to either openly collaborate with Assad and with al-Qaeda as well as attempting to develop the imaginary force that is the Free Syrian Army. In fact, the Free Syrian Army has made it clear that it will not be part of the US effort against ISIS.

The Free Syrian Army has announced that it will not sign up to the US-led coalition to destroy Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria.

The group’s founder, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, stressed that toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is their priority, and that they will not join forces with US-led efforts without a guarantee that the US is committed to his overthrow.

“If they want to see the Free Syrian Army on their side, they should give assurances on toppling the Assad regime and on a plan including revolutionary principles.”

This comes on the heels of the moderate Syrian opposition agreeing to a modern day Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact to fight Assad:

Moderate Syrian rebels and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) reportedly struck a cease-fire deal on Friday, according to a group that has monitored Syria’s civil war.

The groups agreed to a non-aggression pact in which they promised not to attack each other.

The development could influence members of Congress to vote “no” on an authorization to train and equip moderate rebel groups as early as next week. The White House has requested the authorization, but some lawmakers have already been skeptical the opposition groups can be trusted.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in the United Kingdom, said the groups reached the agreement in a suburb of Damascus, Syria’s capital.

Strategically, the focus of our operations should be in Iraq. Unlike the Free Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army represents a national command authority. We can aid the Iraqi Army without taking complete ownership for its actions in the field. The Peshmerga have shown themselves to be moderately competent and could be expected to improve with training and equipment. Inside Iraq we still have the diplomatic, military, and intelligence contacts that would allow an effective use of US air power. None of that is available in Syria. There really is no one in Syria with whom we should wish to ally. Yet, repeatedly, we are told that the Free Syrian Army is key to defeating ISIS:

Nonetheless, the success of President Obama’s strategy in Syria clearly depends on the ability of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS. The good news is the FSA has established a command center outside the village of Marea in the strategically important province of Aleppo to direct and manage the battle against ISIS in northern Syria. And in August the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council, an alliance between FSA and other rebel factions, was formed to increase coordination and unity.

How can these rebel groups help the U.S. assault on ISIS? Even with the world’s most advanced intelligence reconnaissance and surveillance platforms, the U.S. military still needs “eyes on the ground” to round out the intelligence picture of ISIS’s capabilities, locations and vulnerabilities. Establishing an advise and assist relationship with the Free Syrian Army and tribal networks in eastern Syria would pay dividends for military planning. In late July, the Shaitat tribe in eastern Syria rose up against ISIS and drove them from the villages of Abu Hamam, Kashkiyeh and Ghranijup. The Shaitat have in turn faced brutal recriminations, with ISIS fighters capturing and slaughtering some 700 tribal members.

This is true as far as it goes. Absent a competent ground component, air power cannot do much to prevent the expansion of ISIS. But, as we see, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) doesn’t view the strategic picture the same way. They and ISIS have agreed that Assad is the main target.

More critical is a piece that appeared in The New Republic by former Syrian specialist in Obama’s State Department which concludes:

Over three years ago, President Obama called on Bashar al Assad to step aside. Moving this murderous regime offstage will be neither easy nor quick. Yet unless it is a major facet of American strategy, the Islamic State will not be killed. It has been a gift to the Assad regime, one that will keep on giving so long as that regime exists. Legitimate governance in Syria will require much more than removing Assad. But regime removal is the first step, and without legitimate governance in Syria (as well as Iraq) the undead Islamic State will continue to march.

I would contend that the administration’s response to ISIS is, in fact, an example of Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum that you never let a good crisis go to waste.

The administration has been trying to get rid of the Assad regime since the fatuously named Arab Spring. The Free Syrian Army has been consistently touted as the vehicle to accomplish that strategy since at least March 2013. The focus of the administration on training and equipping the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS, when it is actually less capable today than it was a year and a half ago, makes no sense in the context of fighting ISIS. It does, however, make sense if one believes that US air power, working with the Iraqis and Kurds, can stabilize the situation in Iraq while using the FSA as a nominal ground force to fight ISIS in Syria. This would give the US cover for carrying out airstrikes against ISIS and regime targets under the cover of supporting the FSA. Syrian response to US airstrikes would provide more than ample excuse to actively target regime military forces:

The Syrian military’s air defenses would face retaliation if Syria attempted to respond to U.S. air strikes that are expected against Islamic State targets in Syria, senior U.S. officials said on Monday.

It would also create a plausible successor regime to Assad… in much the same way that Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress served as a plausible successor to Saddam Hussein.

In fact, this is exactly the kind of strategy we would expect from the same people who thought arming al Qaeda to overthrow Qaddafi, and running guns to al Qaeda in Syria to overthrow Assad were good ideas.

At least this would masquerade as a strategy. Otherwise, arming the FSA to fight ISIS when it is basically allied with ISIS would be such a stupid proposition that not even the Obama administration could conceive of it… or could they.