BEIRUT: More than two weeks of U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria have achieved little against ISIS militants, who have steadily pressed ahead with their widely covered offensive against the Kurdish town of Ain al-Arab on the border with Turkey.
But while the air campaign was initially expected by many on both sides to keep rebel groups off balance and toss a lifeline to the Syrian regime, observers are still waiting for changes in the overall military situation.
When the airstrikes began Sept. 20, they were directed primarily at ISIS but also at other rebel militias, dedicated to fighting both ISIS and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The very fact that the skies of Syria are now regularly patrolled by two different forces, that of Syria and the U.S.-led coalition, prompted some to suggest that Washington was coordinating with Damascus at a military and perhaps other levels.
Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Daily Star that he believed Washington had “refrained from making political overtures to the Assad regime, to the latter’s concern.”
He described the situation nonetheless as a mix of tacit understandings and certain explicit ones, presumably relayed to Damascus by senior Iraqi intelligence officials.
“But I would need more evidence or convincing to think that these go beyond the tactical to wider coordination or trade-offs,” Sayigh said.
He added that the regime naturally felt “confident about the limits of U.S. strikes – i.e. the regime is not being targeted” and was thus able to focus on its own priorities, but appeared to be failing to cash in on any new opportunities.
“And these priorities are not new,” Sayigh said. “The regime has been trying to push back in northern Homs and Hama provinces for a while. But interestingly it doesn’t seem to be on the offensive any more around Aleppo, I presume because of the looming threat of [ISIS] nearby and also in eastern Homs, which could threaten regime lines to Aleppo.”
The battle for Aleppo has seen heavy clashes throughout the period of the airstrikes; every few days seems to bring a minor gain for one side or the other.
A brief, recent regime push into the Handarat area north of Aleppo, supposedly with the intention of squeezing rebel supply lines and besieging rebel forces in the city, fizzled out.
This week, the Ahrar al-Sham militia, whose top leadership was wiped out in a mysterious bombing over a month ago, declared the start of a campaign south of Aleppo, and promptly seized territory.
An independent Syrian military observer, who requested anonymity, attributed the regime’s stall to its ongoing manpower crisis.
“It continues to rely on Hezbollah fighters and has been forced to call up reserves at a significant pace of late,” the observer said.
In the most recent wave of fighting in Aleppo, rebels claim to have captured or killed Afghan paramilitaries fighting alongside regime forces, adding yet another dimension to a conflict awash in non-Syrian fighters.
Fred Hof is resident senior fellow at Washington’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and was formerly the Obama administration’s point man on a transition in Syria.
Hof told The Daily Star that despite the “widespread opposition belief in a secret handshake” between the regime and the coalition over the airstrikes, the U.S. notification to Syria was likely along the lines of “this is coming, it’s going to be intense, stay the hell out of the way.”
Hof said the air campaign would fail to meet any significant objectives against ISIS since it was not being coupled with a ground component.
And, he continued, ISIS continued to distinguish itself from the other sides in the war because of its ability to maneuver on the ground, in stark contrast to the regime.
“The regime shows some movement on the ground, but essentially its forces are stationary, relying on things like artillery fire, and barrel bombs,” he said.
“The military situation over last two and a half years has a bit of disconnectedness to it. Most of what is happening is local in nature because there are no national forces” to take advantage of a potentially game-changing development such as coalition airstrikes.
But, he continued, the trend of developments thus far indicated that they favored both the regime and ISIS in the Aleppo region.
“There is no rebel benefit from airstrikes, and no input from the opposition into the targeting by the coalition,” Hof said.
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a senior political adviser to the opposition-aligned Syrian American Council, is a proponent of more vigorous political and military engagement by the U.S. in Syria.
In an opinion article this week for The Washington Post, entitled “Bombing friend and foe alike,” Ghanem described a coalition airstrike campaign that was decidedly anti-rebel, because it had the potential to target non-ISIS militias.
“Syrians have no way of knowing who will be targeted next, and the United States therefore risks losing its critical Syrian ground partners,” Ghanem wrote. “The U.S.-endorsed Free Syrian Army’s general staff has requested clarification on which groups are ‘moderate’ enough to avoid targeting. Even the Aleppo Provincial Council, Syria’s first democratic council since 1963, has condemned the strikes outside of [ISIS] territory.”
The Haqq Brigade, a member of the Islamic Front coalition of seven large conservative, Salafist militias, was one of these targets Monday, Ghanem wrote.
Another member of the Islamic Front, Ahrar al-Sham, has also been targeted by the airstrikes, according to multiple media reports.
If the coalition continues to target non-Al-Qaeda rebel militias, it could put intense pressure on the armed opposition, in the view of various experts.
The independent military observer described an intensely fragmented panorama of militias in Aleppo and northern areas. He argued that because no military leader headed a dominant group, they were forced to respect the general popular mood as they dealt with developments.
“In general, if you force the people into a choice between the regime or ISIS, as they react to the airstrike campaign, they’re going to choose ISIS, because they think they can deal with them. In contrast, the regime will show them no mercy,” he said.
The Islamic Front itself, he said, is reacting cautiously to the developments, shifting between the strong, anti-ISIS stance of its leading member in the Damascus area, Zahran Alloush of the Islam Army, and the more conciliatory stance of its leaders in the Aleppo and north.
The Front was obliged to issue a clarification this week, denying that it had conducted a “truce” with ISIS in the wake of the airstrikes, as widely rumored.
Ironically, a rebel military victory has taken place during the period of the airstrikes, but it was in the south of the country, in Deraa province.
With no participation from either the Nusra Front or the leading conservative Islamic Front members, a coalition of rebel groups seized the Tel al-Hara military base, one of several key surveillance centers in the south because it lies atop a hill, commanding views in several directions.
The observer said the advance was likely a “message” from countries backing the rebels via a Military Operations Center in Jordan.
“It’s important because when rebels recently made gains in Qunaitra province on the border with Israel, the Nusra Front was involved – but not in this battle,” the observer said. “It served as a model for what the ‘mainstream’ opposition can achieve, when it is allowed to.”