Battlefield gains by insurgents in northern Syria, in an alliance dominated by an al-Qaida affiliate, and hardline Islamist militias are presenting the Obama administration with a dilemma — whether to support the new insurgent momentum against President Bashar al-Assad or to have nothing to do with it, U.S. officials say.
While the victories last month and this month over forces loyal to Assad in Idlib province west of Aleppo may mark a turning point in the fortunes of the rebels in the long-running, bloody civil war that has left more than 200,000 dead, U.S. officials say they are alarmed at the composition of the alliance known as Jaish al-Fata, or the Army of Conquest, announced on March 28.
They fear a further erosion of Western-backed “moderate” militias as fighters join the new force and they worry about the rise of another jihadist emirate in Syria to match the caliphate of the Islamic State in the eastern part of the country.
The alliance has pulled off a string of significant gains in northern Syria, pulling the rebels out of the doldrums, getting northern rebel militias away from sitting defensively in their half of Aleppo and being barrel-bombed by Assad’s air force. And it has opened up the battlefield in the North, analysts say.
“For the first time in two years, major insurgent victories appear to signal that the battle for Syria has shifted into the opposition's favor,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. “While we do not yet seem to be anywhere close to witnessing the actual collapse of the Assad regime, several important shifts have taken place inside and outside Syria that have induced the power shifts currently under way,” he wrote in a research paper.
“We now find ourselves in a period of critical importance. Lingering dangers from al-Qaida and the haunting reality of IS' covert expansion into southern Syria present substantive threats to the balance of power between insurgents with a Syria-limited focus and those with far broader objectives in mind," he added.
The offensive in Idlib comes at a time that tensions and disputes over tactics appear to be mounting between Assad’s army and the mainly Shite militia the National Defense Force. The Syrian government is coming under a redoubled offensive in the south and Turkey and Saudi Arabia last week announced a pact burying their differences over which militias should be supported, analysts say.
Rebel commanders say their momentum in the North would be advanced, if the United States imposed a no-fly zone in northern Syria — something Khaled Khoja, leader of the Western-backed political opposition alliance the Syrian National Coalition, urged the Obama administration to do during talks last week in the U.S.
But a senior U.S. State Department official told VOA on the condition of anonymity: “No-fly zones, safe havens, just are not happening.”
One major factor pulling against any U.S.-enforced no-fly zone is the Obama administration’s concern of being dragged militarily into the conflict. And the emergence of the new alliance and its recent victories, despite the military opportunity presented, is making the administration more cautious.
At least two U.S.-backed rebel brigades have been cooperating with the new alliance, although not part of the formal command and control structure. According to their commanders, U.S. officials have not asked them to back away yet from the new alliance — as happened with other moderate militias earlier this year who were deemed too close with Islamist brigades in Aleppo and Idlib.
But the Obama administration remains highly skeptical that it can work with Jaish al-Fata, the State Department official said. “Jabhat al-Nusra is a designated terrorist organization, we are prevented by U.S. law from working with the group.”
He added: “Aside from that, other militias in the Army of Conquest like Ahrar-Sham may not be designated terrorist organizations and we may consider them more gray, but it is a gray which is pretty close to black.”
He said American officials are not in direct contact with the new military alliance’s leaders but indirectly they are via the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. “We are in data-collection mode,” the official said. Rebel commanders express frustration with the U.S. position. “The U.S. should impose a no-fly zone if just to help the civilians who are being bombed by Assad,” says Abu Jaseem, commander of the First Regiment, a semi-autonomous militia within the Aleppo-based Liwa al Tawhid brigade.
Last week, Pentagon officials told reporters in Washington that the first 400 volunteers have been vetted for a U.S.-backed force to fight the Islamic State. They said more than 3, 000 others have volunteered for the train-and-equip force and are currently being vetted. But there are still disputes between the Turkish government and Washington over the force’s role, when it is eventually formed. Turkish officials have said publicly they want the force to fight the Assad government as well as the jihadist Islamic State.
And U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns about what air cover the force will get from the United States when it is introduced into Syria. A senior U.S. administration official says a “safe corridor for the force to enter Syria is in the cards with U.S. warplanes ensuring the force doesn’t come under attack from Assad.” He asked not to be identified for this article as he does not have permission to talk with the media about Syria policy.
Getting “train-and-equip” off the ground is not being helped by the emergence of the new military alliance in Idlib. Fighters who may have considered volunteering are more attracted to joining the military coalition in Idlib that is notching up victories, rebel commanders say. They also would prefer to be focusing on Assad. U.S. officials have acknowledged that getting the train-and-equip program off the ground has been a challenge. Most of those recruited so far come from eastern Syria, from villages the Islamic State overran last year.