Coalition risks loss of support unless it clarifies its aims

There is no clear endgame to the airstrikes in Syria, writes Hassan Hassan

As the US-led offensive against ISIL inside Syria enters its 10th day today, there already appears to be a growing public backlash in Syria against the campaign. The scepticism about the air strikes emanates from the lack of clarity over the real aims and objectives of the offensive. Five reasons can be identified for this cynicism, which should be addressed if the air strikes are to lead to a positive outcome.

The first one is that the air strikes do not offer any clear endgame. This lack of clarity over what to expect from the air strikes has led Syrians to interpret the signals they have received so far. Bashar Al Assad, for example, is not only spared the air strikes, but he also has more time to bomb civilian areas, given that the pressure against his forces in Hama and eastern Aleppo has been reduced significantly. This is creating an impression that the Assad regime is a de facto partner in the US coalition, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary.

Another reason is the economic consequences of the air strikes. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that most of the oil refineries controlled by ISIL in Syria have been destroyed. These refineries will prevent ISIL from generating further revenues in Syria, which will also affect ISIL in Iraq, as much of the refined oil is transferred to the other side of the border.

However, these refineries, even before ISIL’s arrival in eastern Syria, have served as a lifeline for local communities.

Oil refineries have helped the population in Deir Ezzor to survive starvation after they were isolated between the Iraqi authorities across theborder, on one hand, and the regime on the other. These refineries were the latchkeys of a full-fledged war economy that helped to operate water-pumping engines to irrigate lands far from the Euphrates river. Without them, the situation in Deir Ezzor would have been much worse. Destroying these refineries will not affect ISIL, which had stopped operating them days before the air strikes began, as much as it will affect families living there.

Another blunder is the reported killing of civilians. Although jihadists’ infrastructure has been destroyed, the way such groups operate makes them less susceptible to air strikes than civilians. While this fact should have led to increased caution in choosing targets, the US seems to be doing the opposite. The White House has reportedly exempted Syrian air strikes from the “tight standards” on civilian deaths imposed by President Barack Obama last year to prevent innocent deaths from drone strikes. The killing of civilians, even if unintended, by both the coalition and the regime helps to entrench the perception that there is de facto coordination between the two.

The fourth reason is the lack of definition of who is being targeted or who is an extremist in Syria. It is a question that led groups, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Salafists, to condemn the air strikes and demand a clear definition from the allies. At first, the air strikes in Syria were defined as being against ISIL and the question remained whether Mr Al Assad would be involved. The allies then made it clear that Iran and Mr Al Assad would not be involved in the fight against ISIL, which was an encouraging move. But doubt started to rise in the run up to the air strikes, with statements from the Assad regime suggesting they had been briefed about the strikes. Now many people, including civilians, feel they are potential targets. An increasing number of rebel factions are saying that the air strikes will include everybody on the non-Assad side.

The last blunder is the targeting of Jabhat Al Nusra and other like-minded groups. This should have been avoided for three reasons. The first one is that there was an opportunity to draw a deeper wedge between ISIL and other jihadist groups. Weeks before the air strikes in Syria, it was clear that Jabhat Al Nusra tried to send signals that it was different from ISIL, through the release of kidnapped peace keepers and an American hostage. The second reason is that, to many Syrians, Jabhat Al Nusra has been the most efficient force against the regime. Targeting it while sparing the regime will make people conclude the air strikes are aiding the regime.

Also, targeting Al Nusra will buttress its longtime argument that since its formation, its main focus has been on aiding the Syrian people. Its leader, Abu Mohammed Al Jolani, recently explained that the reason the group did not announce it was linked to Al Qaeda was to present itself to Syrians as “good people” without being affected by the pre-framed image of Al Qaeda. Jabhat Al Nusra can say that, even though it has dedicated itself to helping Syrians, it has been targeted.

There is still time to pause and consider a shift in the strategy for striking ISIL. As the air strikes drag on without any direct benefits for the local communities, the change in attitude towards a more cynical view of the international role will make a future political settlement in Syria much harder to achieve.

Hassan Hassan is an analyst with the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @hxhassan