As of Thursday, the Islamic State (ISIS) had seized 40% of the strategic Syrian border town of Kobani, raising questions about the success of U.S.-led airstrikes meant to stem the group’s advance. The U.N. warned that ISIS could massacre the remaining 500 people trapped in Kobani, while analysts said an ISIS victory there would destabilize both the border region and the Middle East at large.
ISIS now controls roughly one-third of Syrian territory. Its continued spread has sparked a debate over new measures to counter the group, among them the possible creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria – which could require a no-fly zone to protect it.
As part of the strategy behind coalition airstrikes, unveiled last month, the U.S. had said it would rely on moderate rebel groups in Syria – what’s been known as the Free Syrian Army – to fight ISIS on the ground. But in the past couple of days, the White House admitted that those moderate groups are not prepared to take on ISIS and win; they have been outgunned and overwhelmed by the superior weapons, training and resources that ISIS has at hand.
“The U.S. shares some of the blame for the current state of the rebel forces,” said Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“Part of the issue here is that the U.S. is coming late into the game … prior to this current stage the U.S. had not invested significant resources in improving capacities.”
Bonsey gave us an in-depth explanation of why ISIS has had so much success in Syria and the challenges ahead for degrading its influence.
Syria Deeply: In their current state, how do these rebel forces fare against ISIS? What will they need to be effective?
Bonsey: If we talk about fighting capacity on the ground, the rebels lack the capacity and organization, especially compared to the regime and ISIS.
They have been effective in the past. Rebels in Idlib and Aleppo threw ISIS out of Idlib province, Aleppo city and western and northern countryside in January, so they have a proven track record against ISIS.
But this took place when ISIS was weaker. ISIS has gained a lot of money and manpower since then. Currently, in general, the rebels the U.S. are willing to work with are poorly organized and equipped.
The other problem is that they are also continuing to fight the regime in the crucial Aleppo front and rebels in north of the city are engaged in fights with ISIS. In the past few months, ISIS has escalated its offensive on the northern countryside. The battle has now cooled down a bit, but it requires a lot of rebel resources to hold ISIS at bay to the north of the city. Meanwhile, the regime continues to push inside the city, seeking to besiege rebel forces in the eastern part of the city.
The rebels lack the organization and resources to fight those two battles effectively and at the same time. Thus, we’ve seen continuous regime gains inside the city, and limited ISIS gains north of the city. We can certainly say that so long as the rebels are forced to fight both the regime and ISIS, they do not have the capacity to maintain ground, much less gain any ground.
The rebels can’t divert resources from the fight against the regime to go fight ISIS. By doing so they would enable the regime to make additional gains, which in the case of Aleppo would be particularly devastating for the rebel militants and the Syrian opposition in general.
One thing we’ve seen since the beginning of coalition strikes on Syria, while ISIS targets in eastern Syria as well as some Jabhat al-Nusra targets were hit, is that the regime has continued its indiscriminate attacks, including barrel bomb attacks, on Aleppo. The regime views the coalition strikes as another step in the direction of Western cooperation with Damascus. It has welcomed them publicly.
In the meantime the regime doesn’t feel under any pressure to improve its behavior or make political concessions. It has pretty much continued to engage in the behavior and tactics that created the jihadi problem in the first place, even as the coalition has gotten involved militarily in Syria. This has created a high level of anger within rebel ranks, who see the coalition engaging ISIS in a way that isn’t helpful to them, given the location of the strikes. Meanwhile they see that the strikes have given a boost of morale to the regime that continues to pursue the same strategies it did prior to the strikes.
Syria Deeply: How are the U.S. strikes impacting Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS?
Bonsey: Jabhat al-Nusra has credibility with Syrian activists. Jabhat al-Nusra has taken on a lower profile on the ground since the strikes. The strikes strengthened their narrative and allowed them to portray the coalition strikes as a broader war on the Syrian revolution and Islam itself. It’s difficult to tell what the impact on their capacity will be moving forward.
In terms of ISIS, the strikes have focused primarily on some of their bases, facilities, weapons depots, oil facilities – things of strategic value to the organization. The tactical strikes have been limited. The question moving forward is, will tactical strikes that have taken out ISIS weaponry, personnel and resources outweigh the boost of morale and propaganda that ISIS has claimed since the strikes?
ISIS can now claim it is fighting a war against anti-ISIS rebels, the regime, the [Kurdish] PKK, and a broader Western coalition. In terms of propaganda, they welcome the opportunity to take on the U.S.
The civilian casualties from the U.S. strikes and the targeting of Jabhat al-Nusra also help the ISIS narrative that the West and its allies are waging a war against Sunni Arabs and Islam.
The cost and benefit of targeting ISIS remain to be seen, but the potential for the strikes to weaken ISIS is limited. Ultimately, you need credible ground forces that can defeat ISIS forces on the ground, to take territory and control it. This certainly can’t be accomplished by airstrikes, and you certainly can’t ask Kurdish forces or Shia forces to take and hold territory in the Sunni-Arab areas that serve as the core of ISIS’s territorial control. The peshmerga is not going to go into Sunni areas in Iraq and control that territory going forward, nor is the Iraqi army and its allies going to be able to do that. The missing component in the U.S. strategy in general has been in strengthening local credible Sunni forces on both sides of the border. We haven’t seen much progress at all in that regard.
Syria Deeply: There are now more poignant calls for a buffer zone in northern Syria. How feasible and realistic is the implementation of a buffer zone? Would it require a no-fly zone?
Bonsey: It would. A buffer zone would certainly require preventing the regime from carrying out airstrikes. Thus far, the Obama administration has been very reluctant to seriously consider a no-fly zone. Turkey and the rebels are pushing very hard for a no-fly zone, but I’ve seen no indication that the Obama administration will seriously consider this, given that it will include extending the target of the strikes to include taking out the air capacity of the regime. Barring a change of strategy in Washington, it’s difficult to see a no-fly zone being implemented. The Turks certainly can’t do it themselves.
Syria Deeply: If it were to happen, what could it achieve? What would be the upside?
Bonsey: It would be much easier to empower local rebel powers if regime air attacks ceased in northern Syria. The regime’s air advantage is the most important obstacle to rebels being able to gain and hold ground in the north against the regime, and to be able to better organize themselves on the ground to provide services to local people.
A no-fly zone in the north simply enables a much higher degree of organization within rebel ranks, assisted more directly by opposition state actors.