Since August 2014, the US-led air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has successfully inflicted casualties on ISIS and weakened its oil revenues. However, the same efforts have also accelerated the rise of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and the near-collapse of nationalist rebel forces.
In “Defeating the Jihadists in Syria: Competition before Confrontation,” Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East details the unintended consequences of the coalition air campaign and proposes a revised US strategy. He argues that the United States can effectively assist nationalist insurgents to defeat ISIS and the Nusra Front by enabling them to compete with and contain these groups before ultimately confronting them.
Itani writes that the US-led campaign thus far and the train-and-equip initiative set to begin next month undermine and weaken nationalist rebel forces. He criticizes these efforts for failing to provide sufficient support to the rebel forces, while directing them to target ISIS instead of the regime. Meanwhile, the Nusra Front and other jihadist organizations have greater resources and have been effective in targeting the Assad regime. As such, nationalist rebel forces and local populations have increasingly aligned with the Nusra Front and even tolerate ISIS in order to protect themselves against regime violence, criminality, and chaos.
Itani’s proposed US strategy offers a practical and workable response to the rise of jihadists groups in Syria; this revised strategy seeks to support rebel forces to compete with the Nusra Front for popular support and to take control of the insurgency, contain ISIS, and build capacity for an eventual offensive against the jihadists. This approach will build on positive results in southern Syria by significantly increasing direct financial and material support and training for vetted nationalist groups that have already shown significant success. Simultaneously, in the north the campaign can provide sufficient material support to nationalist forces while expanding coalition air strikes to target ISIS’s frontlines, allowing the nationalist insurgency to defend and govern territory. Only once nationalist insurgent forces have successfully competed with the Nusra Front and contained ISIS can they confront and ultimately defeat the jihadist groups in Syria.