THE NEW YORK TIMES
Conflicting Policies on Syria and Islamic State Erode U.S. Standing in Mideast
By ANNE BARNARD
NOVEMBER 27, 2014
BEIRUT, Lebanon — American and Syrian warplanes screamed over the Syrian city of Raqqa in separate raids this week, ostensibly against the same target, the Islamic State militants in control there.
In the first raid, on Sunday, United States warplanes hit an Islamic State building, with no report of civilian casualties. On Tuesday, Syrian jets struck 10 times, killing scores of civilians, according to residents and Islamic State videos.
The back-to-back strikes, coming just days after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria declared that the West needed to side with him in “real and sincere” cooperation to defeat the extremist group, infuriated Syrians who oppose both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State. They see American jets sharing the skies with the Syrians but doing nothing to stop them from indiscriminately bombing rebellious neighborhoods. They conclude, increasingly, that the Obama administration is siding with Mr. Assad, that by training United States firepower solely on the Islamic State it is aiding a president whose ouster is still, at least officially, an American goal.
Their dismay reflects a broader sense on all sides that President Obama’s policies on Syria and the Islamic State remain contradictory, and the longer the fight goes on without the policies being resolved, the more damage is being done to America’s standing in the region.
More than two months after the campaign against the Islamic State plunged the United States into direct military involvement in Syria, something Mr. Obama had long avoided, the group has held its strongholds there and even expanded its reach. That has called into question basic assumptions of American strategy.
One is that the United States can defeat the Islamic State without taking sides in Syria’s civil war. Another is that it can drive the group out of Iraq while merely diminishing and containing it in Syria, pursuing different approaches on each side of a porous border that the Islamic State seeks to erase.
“The fundamental disconnects in U.S. strategy have been exposed and amplified” as Islamic State militants have advanced in central Syria in recent weeks, said Emile Hokayem, a Syria analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Like Mr. Assad’s opponents, he contends that extremists cannot be defeated without ending decades of harsh Assad family rule and empowering the disenfranchised Sunni Muslims who drive the insurgency.
Mr. Obama has sought to treat Syria as a separate problem and concentrate on Iraq, where he sees more compelling United States interests — if only the political need to salvage the legacy of American deaths there. But most analysts say the two conflicts are inextricable.
In Iraq, the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, seems to have reached the limits of its expansion as it bumps up against areas without a Sunni Arab majority and Iraqi and Kurdish forces make some gains. But driving it out entirely is another matter, particularly if it can rely on a rear base in Syria, where Mr. Hokayem said it could still expand in majority-Sunni areas.
In eastern Syria, Islamic State fighters easily cross the Iraqi border. Mr. Assad, focused on holding Syria’s main cities in the west, is unlikely to bring the area under control soon. Last week, the Islamic State said it was setting clocks in Raqqa ahead one hour to match Iraqi time.
Inside and outside Syria, a growing refrain from Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents alike is that American policy makes little sense — that by trying to avoid taking sides, the United States is neither having its cake nor eating it.
Supporters of Mr. Assad say that the United States should ally with him and his main backer, Iran. They note that Iran’s proxies have already worked indirectly with American-backed forces to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, and that in Syria, those forces appear far better organized than Mr. Obama’s putative allies, mainstream Syrian insurgents opposed to the Islamic State.
But in Syria, where well over 150,000 people have died in three years of war, such cooperation would put the United States in the awkward position of siding with a government that opponents say has killed many times more Syrians than has the Islamic State. “For years they are killing people, and they didn’t hurt him,” Amjad Hariri, 31, a Syrian refugee in a ramshackle Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, said of Mr. Assad. “They only went after ISIS.”
Mr. Hariri, who moved his family from the southern Syrian city of Dara’a after losing three siblings in the crackdown, drew a bitter conclusion. “It gives him the privilege to kill his people, like a father killing his children.”
Many of Mr. Assad’s opponents see themselves as stranded between two violent oppressors, the government and the Islamic State. Others who “could have been peeled off,” Mr. Hokayem said, are now embracing the militants as they lose hope of United States action against Mr. Assad, who they see as “a greater threat.” Syrian government warplanes, as well as barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, kill the very fighters that Mr. Obama hopes to recruit. Many of those Syrian insurgents say that only by attacking or curbing Mr. Assad’s military can the United States win them to its side against the extremists.
But there is no guarantee that would work. Anti-Assad insurgents might well see fighting the Islamic State as a detour, especially if American pressure offered new chances to topple the president. Yet American policy is not to oust Mr. Assad precipitously, risking an extremist takeover, but to push him to a political settlement.
If the United States attacked Syrian forces it could risk killing fighters from Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militia that has fought effectively on Mr. Assad’s side. While Hezbollah and the United States, bitter enemies over Israel, are highly unlikely to cooperate openly, the group has declared the Islamic State a mortal enemy and worked with the United States-aided Lebanese Army against extremists from Syria.
At the same time, peeling off fighters from the Islamic State to join relatively moderate rebel groups is difficult, particularly while an American program to train and equip insurgents is still in its infancy, said a Syrian who abandoned another rebel group for the Islamic State because it was better armed and financed. Later, disillusioned, he began informing on the group to Western officials.
Recently, he said, he contacted an opposition leader and said fighters were ready to leave the Islamic State. “His reply? ‘Do they have money, or are they broke?’ ” the informant recalled, asking that his name be withheld for safety and adding, “Sometimes I hate my life.”
Wissam Tarif, a Lebanese activist who aids Syrian civic groups, said that airstrikes against extremists were useless without a war of ideas.
“You kill 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 — they will recruit more and more,” he said. “The U.S. is fighting the wrong battle. It needs to fight to win the hearts of the Syrian people. They need to feel that there is someone out there who is a superpower who really cares.”
That, he said, requires a laboratory to set up civil, non-Islamist rule, perhaps in a buffer zone internationally protected from airstrikes, something the United States has resisted.
Many Syrians are stuck in the middle. Umm Firas, who lost two sons working to depose Mr. Assad, now fears losing another to army bombardments and insurgent infighting that the United States air attacks have done nothing to stop. She fears the Islamic State will soon penetrate her district on the outskirts of Damascus.
Abu Hamza, who commands a small, local insurgent group in northern Syria, waited in vain for Western help. Now, he said via Skype, he is close to despair, “living like a hobo and starving” while an Islamic State stranger runs his area. “I feel this country is no longer mine,” he said.
Hwaida Saad and Mohammad Ghannam contributed reporting