BEIRUT: Anti-regime Syrian activists were predictably less than impressed by this week’s prime-time national address by U.S. President Barack Obama, who pledged to lead a campaign to eradicate the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS.
The long-awaited speech was expected to mark America’s direct entry into the war raging in Syria, albeit through the aerial bombardment of ISIS, which has focused most of its efforts on instituting ultra-conservative rule in the territory it controls in Syria’s east, and clashing with the many mainstream and Islamist insurgent groups dedicated to fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.
As news spread Thursday of Obama’s mostly rehashed version of earlier Syria policy, such as training and arming mainstream rebel groups, the reaction was largely ho-hum, laced with a heavy dose of skepticism and worry.
Asked about local reaction to the president’s announced plans, an anti-regime media activist in Deir al-Zor told The Daily Star that “everything is about the same, except for fear and apprehension about the fate that awaits people from random airstrikes.”
This summer, ISIS militants swept through Deir al-Zor province, making it the group’s second most important stronghold after next-door Raqqa province to the west. While ISIS and its allied groups, along with the regime, control most of the city of Deir al-Zor, rebels fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner, and organized mainly along tribal lines, control a smaller, third portion, he said.
“In recent days, ISIS fighters have concentrated themselves in residential neighborhoods,” the activist said. “Of course, they’ve vacated some points, but these weren’t of any importance to them because they were out in remote areas.”
The activist said ISIS militants have taken up position in many government buildings, long-vacated by the regime, and “these offices are very close to residential neighborhoods.”
“Even the FSA fighters are afraid,” the activist said, citing the possibility of airstrikes that might see them targeted by accident.
Many of the activist-run social media platforms that follow minute aspects of the war raging in Syria simply ignored Obama’s address completely; the many high-profile opposition media outlets and activist news organizations dutifully reported the content of the speech, but with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
The Facebook page of the Syrian Revolution against Bashar Assad, a leading national network of activists, posted a comment that summed up the appraisals of various, unnamed analysts of the war: “American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq put those two countries into the lap of the Iranians ... will this scenario be repeated in Syria ... ?”
While Afghanistan is far from being an Iranian satellite, the sentiment reflected the common view that the two U.S. wars did in fact remove from power two of Iran’s enemies, the Taliban and the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein.
An anti-regime activist who runs an Internet news outlet based in Turkey told The Daily Star that in the run-up to Obama’s address, “people in Syria were waiting for a dose of ‘adrenaline’ from what the president was going to say.”
“But nothing clear came out of it. Training the opposition is an old story,” the activist said.
Washington’s long-term, counter-terrorism campaign to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, he continued, means little for Syrians who “don’t know how much longer they can hold out.”
As the activist spoke, he interrupted his comments to issue instructions to a colleague: “The casualty figure in Douma is now up to 30 – update it, okay?” Returning to the conversation, the activist said, “this kind of news, about dozens of people being slaughtered [by regime airstrikes], is now as ordinary as saying ‘hello, how are you.’”
Mustafa Jurf, a leading blogger, said Obama’s speech only brought to mind the events of just over a year ago, when the picture in Syria was quite different.
In August 2013, in the wake of a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, Washington suddenly issued serious signals that it would launch a set of airstrikes against the regime. Assad quickly agreed to a Russian suggestion that Damascus hand over its stockpiles of chemicals and chemical weapons to avoid the threatened onslaught.
“This strike,” Jurf wrote, “however limited and weak, would have led to the collapse of the Assad regime and the victory of the armed opposition ... and the beginning of building a new regime to rule the entire country.”
Jurf said that when Washington stepped back from striking the regime last year, this should have prompted the opposition to set up a cohesive, functioning authority in the areas under their control.
“But the revolutionary groups lacked the political and organizational capacities, and even a vision,” to accomplish such a task. In response, ISIS – “with its strong organization and clear objective to establish a caliphate, filled the vacuum,” Jurf wrote.
“Obama’s stepping back from a strike around one year ago was the moment that the Islamic caliphate state was established – he’s the true founder of this state, which he now wants to destroy,” was Jurf’s conclusion, mirroring the sentiments of many in Syria’s fractured opposition.