This is sort of a good news, bad news, worse news story.
The Trump administration has abandoned the dunderheaded scheme the Obama administration came up with to combat ISIS and it looks like their plan to take the ISIS capital, Raqqa, might actually work:
Hundreds of Syrian fighters and their American military advisers, backed by American artillery and attack helicopters, have begun a major operation to cut off the western approaches to Raqqa, the city the Islamic State has proclaimed as its capital, officials said Wednesday.
It was the first time that the United States had carried out an air assault with Syrian fighters in its campaign against the Islamic State, and the mission, which began Tuesday, reflected the leeway the Trump administration has given its commanders to carry out operations without prolonged review in Washington.
In a significant commitment of American forces, American helicopters ferried fighters across enemy lines while Marine Corps howitzers, Army Apache attack helicopters and American warplanes provided firepower for the operation. Army surface-to-surface Himars rockets, which are based in northern Syria, are also part of the mission. American Special Operations forces were advising the Syrian fighters on the ground, although a military spokesman said they were not involved in direct, front-line combat.
I am agnostic on whether or not this is meaningful outside of the Beltway. The only way I can see this as being significant is if ISIS is determined to defend Raqqa to the last jihadi because ISIS is more ideology than territory. It is always possible that the fire that propelled ISIS forward will burn itself out but color me skeptical. What is notable is that in the time since H. R. McMaster has been the National Security Adviser, he has jettisoned the bizarre plan conjured up by the Obama administration, replaced it with an American plan, and is executing that plan in a rather ferocious manner.
Those Syrian fighters? Stand by for them to be rebranded.
But Syria’s armed opposition is also changing as a result of internal pressures. Al Qaeda’s Syrian representatives — rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in July 2016 and then renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) after subsuming several other groups in January — have been relentless, and patient, in pursuing their long-term objective: a merger of all armed Syrian opposition groups under its broad transnational Islamic umbrella. Al Qaeda has commonly called this goal a “uniting of the ranks.”
Largely free of any government instruction, and spurred on by the gradual weakening of the opposition’s most moderate base, al Qaeda spent much of 2012 to 2015 building the trust of Syria’s opposition under the guise of Jabhat al-Nusra, which means literally “support front.” This was the first phase of al Qaeda’s attempt to embed itself in the opposition. The group positioned itself as merely one component of a broad Syrian revolutionary movement, using controlled pragmatism, a clearly defined military strategy, and an emphasis on localism to socialize Syrians into accepting, then supporting, its presence. By rebranding itself as JFS in mid-2016 and by telling Syrians that it had broken its external ties to al Qaeda, the group sought to overcome the only remaining hurdle to uniting the ranks by convincing enough of Syria’s opposition that it was a fundamentally Syrian movement, dedicated to a local cause and not to a transnational jihadi project.
Al-Nusra continued to serve as al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria until last summer when Julani announced that his group was “splitting” from the al Qaeda network and rebranding itself as Jabhat Fateh el-Sham (JFS). “We declare the complete cancellation of all operations under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra, and the formation of a new group operating under the name ‘Jabhat Fateh al-Sham,’ noting that this new organization has no affiliation to any external entity,” Julani said.
Counterterrorism experts immediately dismissed the idea that a real separation had occurred, instead concluding that Julani’s purpose was to enable JFS to procure new partnerships and additional sources of financing from individuals or organizations hesitant to support an overt al Qaeda associate. Skeptics pointed out that a few months prior to Julani’s move, al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri had issued a statement giving his blessing for al-Nusra to break away from al Qaeda and unite with other jihadi factions fighting in Syria. During his video announcement, Julani declared his reverence for Osama bin Laden and his intention to establish an Islamic state in Syria.
This January, JFS once again rebranded itself, this time as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the product of its merger with four smaller Syrian jihadist factions. Hashim al-Sheikh, also known as Abu Jabir, who had previously been the head of the rival Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, was named the new leader of HTS, and former JFS leader Julani was appointed the alliance’s general military commander.
Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.
Credit where credit is due. This is made possible by the Obama administration betraying the Syrian rebels as a favor to the Iranians and Russians.
We are providing training to the Syrian opposition and we have American advisers guiding them through their first combats as actual soldiers and not as members of an armed mob. We are showing their leaders how to coordinate operations. We are acquainting them with our Tactics, Techniques and Procedures. This leads to a situation foreseen by the military humor/parody site DuffleBlog: Special Forces Soldier Excited To Train Men Who Will Try To Kill Him In Five Years.
Hezbollah leader Nasrallah called on ISIS operatives to move from the Islam-enemy front to the Resistance front pic.twitter.com/7LP7oSwCMC
— Yossi Mansharof (@Yossi_Mansharof) March 18, 2017
Nasrallah, of course, leads Lebanese Hezbollah, which is basically the JV team for the Iranian Pasdaran in Syria. What this tweet refers to is a televised address where Nasrallah calls al-Qaeda American tools for fighting ISIS, predicts al-Qaeda, the Syrian opposition, and ISIS will crumble and he calls on them to join Hezbollah, and presumably Iran, in fighting the real enemy which is Israel.
Lest you think this is mere bluster, this is from over the weekend:
This morning (Saturday), Arab media outlets reported that Israel conducted yesterday’s airstrike in Syria in order to prevent North Korean missiles from reaching Hezbollah. As reported yesterday by JOL, an anti-aircraft missile was shot at Israel in response to the airstrike, which was intercepted by the IDF’s Arrow System.
According to a report on the Arab news website Rai al-Youm, political groups and reliable Jordanian sources believe that there is a connection between recent Israeli military and intelligence operations along Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon and between leaked information claiming that Hezbollah has obtained extremely technologically advanced missiles from North Korea.
North Korean ballistic missiles bought by Iran, probably using some of that $1.7 BILLION in cash Obama gave them, were being delivered to Hezbollah in Lebanon. You can guess the intended target.
The only good thing about the Obama administration’s foreign policy in Syrian and Iraq was that it was so bizarre and outrageous that it was guaranteed to make the wars in those nations drag out ad infinitum. In my opinion, this was a feature, not a bug. Muslim extremists killing each other and developing enmities that will result in generations of mutual slaughter is an unalloyed good thing. Breaking ISIS may very well end up being the most costly victory we’ve ever had.