The same day the U.S. and an internally contradictory ‘grand coalition’ correctly and justly launched airstrikes on the Islamic State’s (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) Syrian safe haven in Syria, the U.S. launched another war, a unilateral war, on Syria’s Al-Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, in separate but simultaneous attacks in Idlib and Aleppo governates.
The politics of the war on ISIS and the war on Jabhat al-Nusra could not be more different:
- Unlike the war on ISIS, the roots of this war are in Washington, D.C., not in local/regional developments. Jabhat al-Nusra has fought against Syrian rebel groups only sporadically, preferring to cooperate with them in the people’s war to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
- Unlike the war on ISIS, this war is largely unilateral. The only forces attacking Jabhat al-Nusra aside from the U.S. are the Assad regime and ISIS, the two main forces the U.S. is ostensibly working against in Syria.
- Unlike the war on ISIS, American airstrikes on Jabhat al-Nusra have a very different and unambiguously negative political impact on the Syrian revolution. The strikes have been universally condemned by rebel forces, including U.S.-backed and armed Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions like the Hazem Movement, and condemned by some of the largest and most spirited popular demonstrations in rebel areas since anti-ISIS protests in January 2014.
By attacking Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS at the same time while exempting the Assad regime from the same treatment, the U.S. has handed all three of them a political and propaganda victory and made Jabhat al-Nusra’s claim that U.S. attacks are “not a war against al-Nusra, but a war against Islam” credible to tens of thousands of Syrians living in rebel-held areas. The longer the U.S. war on Jabhat al-Nusra continues, the more it will:
- Make it politically impossible for any elements of the FSA to receive American weapons and support, which can only strengthen the regime on the battlefield.
- Undermine the National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (Etilaf) the U.S. relies on for the political side of its anti-ISIS strategy in Syria.
- Potentially re-unite Al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria against their common ‘crusader’ enemy while creating a surge in popular support for both.
- Create more rather than fewer enemies for the U.S., the alleged criteria Obama uses to decide whether or not to launch targeted assassinations as part of his counter-terrorism doctrine.
In short, a U.S. war on Jabhat al-Nusra is just what Baghdadi ordered.
At the same time, the total number of Syrian civilians being killed in air attacks has fallen significantly since the onset of U.S. and coalition airstrikes, proving once again that Assad’s fascist regime is still number one enemy of the Syrian people even with American drones and cruise missiles flying overhead.
U.S. imperialism’s interests in Syria are a tangled web of contradictions that have become ever-more acute and insoluble every year since the 2011 uprising began. These contradictory interests are the social roots of Obama administration’s utter incoherence on Syria; their policy has veered from one conundrum (“Assad must go” in 2011) to another (“red lines” in 2012-2013) to yet another (“degrade and destroy ISIL” in 2014). At each stage of the revolution’s development, each concurrent shift in U.S. policy created an additional layer of interminable contradictions that the U.S. cannot resolve so long as it remains committed to saving the regime’s institutions from destruction by forcing Assad to step down through negotiations rather than enabling its ‘partners,’ the rebels, to win an outright victory.
- When the rebels were winning in 2011-2012, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) imposed a heavy weapons blockade on the FSA to check rebel momentum. Lack of heavy weapons or a no-fly zone created a strictly military necessity of collaborating with Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra as the only force ready, willing, and able to use vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices driven by suicide bombers necessary to destroy fortified regime checkpoints and bases.
- When starving the FSA of arms worked and the rebels lost their momentum in 2013, the regime regrouped and went on the offensive. The U.S. and its allies in response allowed FSA to receive some heavy weapons, enough to fight but not enough to win. This created a military stalemate between rebel and regime forces as a precursor to a U.S.-brokered negotiated settlement, a stalemate that allowed ISIS to gain strength. While the FSA was focused on its primary objective of toppling the regime in what was then a one-front war, ISIS waged war surreptitiously on the FSA’s rear in liberated areas during the latter half of 2013.
- In early-mid 2014 (after some slick politicking by Etilaf president Ahmed Jarba), the U.S. and its allies began directly and steadily supplying select factions of FSA with small amounts of heavy weapons in exchange for Etilaf’s participation in the miserable failure known as Geneva 2 where a transition to a post-Assad government was never even discussed by the regime delegation. Simultaneously, the FSA and the Islamic Front opened a second front and launched an all-out offensive on ISIS and drove them out of Aleppo city and Idlib province.
- In summer and fall of 2014, ISIS offensives triggered the unprecedented and ongoing collapse of the U.S.-backed Iraqi military. Suddenly, the “farmers and dentists” Obama starved of arms became ‘partners’ in the fight against ISIS and terrorism even though they had been fighting ISIS for the better part of 2014 without adequate U.S. support and the U.S. slowly reversed its opposition to airstrikes on ISIS in Syria.
- Despite this so-called partnership, neither the U.S. nor its airborne coalition are coordinating airstrikes in Syria with either Etilaf personnel on the ground or FSA commanders.
Some in the opposition mistakenly view this lack of coordination as a logistical problem when in fact U.S. refusal to coordinate with its Syrian partners reflects the partners’ conflicting political priorities. Regime change is the top priority of Etilaf and the FSA while ‘counter-terrorism’ is the top priority of the U.S. and so Etilaf and the FSA want airstrikes not only against ISIS but also against the Assad regime while their partner, the U.S., does not. Conversely, the U.S. is taking action against factions fighting allied to FSA that are fighting both the regime and ISIS by going to war unilaterally with Jabhat al-Nusra, adding the Chechen group Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar in Syria to its terrorism designation list, and blacklisting Ahrar al-Sham in the text of the legislation that set aside $500 million to arm, equip, and train 5,000 FSA fighters.
All of these actions undermine and weaken America’s anti-ISIS partners Etilaf and FSA and therefore strengthen both the regime and ISIS, which, in turn, makes the negotiated settlement the U.S. wants even less likely.
A similar contradiction exists between the U.S. and the 50,000-strong Syrian Kurdish-led People’s Defense Units (YPG). Nominally, they are on the same side in the war on ISIS but coordination and collaboration against ISIS is non-existent even though YPG is the only force that can serve as “boots on the ground” there and the Syrian Kurdish-led government YPG fights for is the only possible political partner for the U.S. in Kobane, Rojava, and Hasaka that can prevent ungoverned spaces from emerging where ISIS could contend for state power.
Fortunately for both the YPG and FSA, they are fast becoming each other’s firm allies despite the U.S. government’s inherent indecisiveness. After establishing a joint operations command between YPG and FSA’s Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, Saraya Jarablus, Thuwar Umna’a al-Raqqa, Liwa al-Jihad Raqqa, and Jaysh al-Qassas, and the Islamic Front‘s Liwa al-Tawhid, the Syriac military council (part of YPG) signed a historic agreement with FSA and Etilaf leaders to fight ISIS and the regime together. They understand that Assad and his regime are the root of ISIS in Syria and are not constrained by any contradictory pressures or interests from ripping up the weed’s roots.