U.S. Bombings Driving Anti-Assad Rebels To Support ISIS

Our supposed Syrian allies seem to have a different idea of who the enemy in Syria actually is.

Obama Syria

The U.S. bombing campaign in Syria appears to be having an unintended consequence that is quite contradictory to the goals that the Obama Administration has set:

US air strikes in Syria are encouraging anti-regime fighters to forge alliances with or even defect to Islamic State (Isis), according to a series of interviews conducted by the Guardian.

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamic military groups are joining forces with Isis, which has gained control of swaths of Syria and Iraq and has beheaded six western hostages in the past few months.

Some brigades have transferred their allegiance, while others are forming tactical alliances or truces. Support among civilians also appears to be growing in some areas as a result of resentment over US-led military action.

“Isis now is like a magnet that attracts large numbers of Muslims,” said Abu Talha, who defected from the FSA a few months ago and is now in negotiations with other fighters from groups such as the al-Nusra Front to follow suit.

Assam Murad, a fighter from a 600-strong dissident FSA brigade near Homs said: “There’s no way we would fight Isis after the US military campaign against them.”

A third man, Abu Zeid, the commander of an FSA brigade near Idlib and a defector from President Bashar al-Assad’s army, said: “All the locals here wonder why the US coalition never came to rescue them from Assad’s machine guns, but run to fight Isis when it took a few pieces of land. We were in a robust fight against Isis for confiscating our liberated areas, but now, if we are not in an alliance, we are in a truce with them.”

These and other Syrian fighters told the Guardian in interviews by phone and Skype that the US campaign is turning the attitudes of Syrian opposition groups and fighters in favour of Isis. Omar Waleed, an FSA fighter in Hama, north of Damascus, said: “I’m really scared that eventually most of the people will join Isis out of their disappointment with the US administration. Just have a look on social media websites, and you can see lots of people and leaders are turning to the side of Isis.

“We did not get any weapons from the US to fight the regime for the last three years. Only now US weapons arrived for fighting Isis.”

Abu Talha said he had joined the FSA after being released from prison in an amnesty Assad granted shortly after the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, and became commander of the Ansar al-Haq brigade in Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus. He became disillusioned with the FSA, however, believing it was a tool of foreign intelligence services and poor in combat. After four senior fighters in his brigade were fatally wounded a few months ago, he defected to Isis.

“Since that day, I vowed not to fight under a flag bearing the mark of the FSA even for a second. I looked around for truthful jihadis, to fight by their side. I could not find any better than the jihadis of Isis. I told my fighters: ‘I’m going to join Isis, you are free to follow me or choose your own way’,” he said.

More than 200 of his fellow fighters also declared their allegiance to Isis, a move met with opprobrium by other FSA brigades and civilians. Then the US and its allies began a campaign of air strikes.

“All those who were cursing and attacking us for joining Isis came to pledge their loyalty to Isis. A couple were FSA commanders, others were members of Islamic brigades. Even ordinary people now demand to be governed by Isis,” Abu Talha said.

Only a small number openly declared their new allegiance, he added. “Large brigades in Idlib, Aleppo, Derra, Qalamoun and south Damascus have pledged loyalty to Isis in secret. Many senior leaders of brigades in Syria are in talks with us now to get together and fight as a united force against the US aggression,” he said. His claims cannot be independently verified.

Murad, a fighter with the FSA’s 600-strong al-Ribat brigade near Homs, said an offer three months ago by the US-backed Hazem movement to supply his unit with advanced weaponry if it joined the fight against Isis was turned down.

“We rejected this attractive offer, even though we are in great need not only of weapons but food. There is no way that we would fight Isis after the US military campaign against them,” he said.

One of the factors that appears to be drawing some groups to the ISIS banner, of course, is the fact that they appear to be the one element of the Syrian rebellion that has had some degree of success against the Assad regime. As the old saying goes, after all, nothing succeeds like success, and in the end all of these groups have as their primary goal deposing the government in Damascus, not winning the United States’s fight against ISIS, so it’s not surprising that they are allying themselves with a group that seem to be having some degree of success against the Assad regime, albeit admittedly that seems to be a relative term given the fact that, notwithstanding the advance of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, the Assad regime seems to be the one force that is doing the best of all the combatants in Syria. Four years on, despite predictions, it continues to hold on to power and, for the time being, there’s no reason believe that this is going to change.

Another factor at play here, no doubt, is the fact that our supposed “moderate” Syrian rebel friends continue to be upset by the fact that U.S. policy is focusing exclusively on attacking ISIS while ignoring completely any effort to assist them and their allies in deposing the Assad regime. This, of course, has always been a potential flaw in the entire plan that the Obama Administration has put forward in its war against ISIS, especially as it concerns the component of the war in Syria. While it may be our policy to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, for the “moderate” Syrian rebels, the primary goal remains fighting against their enemy in Damascus. The fact that we are now arming them and expecting that they will join us in the fight against ISIS doesn’t mean that this dream will come true, or even that the arms we are giving them will remain in their hands rather than being shared with, or sold to, ISIS and other jihadist elements fighting Assad along with them. Given the cross purposes between the U.S. and our supposed Syrian rebel allies, it’s not all that surprising that at least some of them are choosing sides with ISIS against Assad rather than fighting ISIS itself. What that means for the President’s strategy going forward should be rather obvious.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

  2. stonetools says:

    There is no good option here, INCLUDING doing nothing ( Doug’s preferred option), so we are doing something-containing ISIS. The fact is that some of the players in Syria don’t like that seems to be very important to Doug, but should be expected in the kind of messy, war of all against all situation happening in Syria.
    Doug, like most military folks, hankers for a WW2 situation, where the good guys are clearly delineated from the bad guys-at least in postwar mythology. People forget that our ally, the USSR, was on Hitler’s side to begin the war and supplied him with aid right up till June 21, 1941.People also seem to forget that revolutionaries like Gandhi saw no difference between Hitler and Churchill at the beginning (they were both European imperialists). WW2 wasn’t quite the war of unalloyed good against bad that we remember.

    Surely our de facto alliance with Assad in Syria is less murky than our explicit alliance with a mass murderer and the world’s greatest colonial empire in WW2. The point here is that we need to pursue our long term interest-the suppression of Sunni jihadism. If that means that some of our allies don’t like this, or that it helps Assad, well, too bad.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    Speaking of which…I see Doug’s guy, Rand Paul, wants to declare war on ISIS. Now we haven’t declared war on anyone since WW2…so this call for intervention is clearly political posturing by the non-interventionist. But most importantly…it illustrates that lot’s of people want to complain…but no one seems to have any better options than what is being done right now…and being done as successfully as can be expected.

  4. Michael Robinson says:

    I’m sure if we all just clap harder, we can materialize brigades of disciplined moderate Arabs willing to fight and die for our geopolitical convenience.

    Maybe we’ll have to sprinkle some training-and-advisors dust.

    But that’ll do it for sure.

    And a drone strike or two.

  5. Michael Robinson says:


    The point here is that we need to pursue our long term interest-the suppression of Sunni jihadism.

    Make up your mind. Either your long-term interest is the suppression of Sunni jihadism, or your long-term interest is a (relatively) secure supply of (relatively) cheap oil.

    You can’t have it both ways.

  6. stonetools says:

    @Michael Robinson:

    Make up your mind. Either your long-term interest is the suppression of Sunni jihadism, or your long-term interest is a (relatively) secure supply of (relatively) cheap oil.

    You can’t have it both ways.

    Actually, I can. The jihadists hate the Saudi royal family, too, so they are our allies here. And cheap oil is not really our long term interest-so much as cheap energy– they aren’t the same.Finally, it looks like oil will be cheap for a while, for various reasons.

  7. Tyrell says:

    @stonetools: Those of us who remember the so-called gas “shortage” crisis of the early ’70’s don’t want to go through that again (there was no shortage, there was plenty of gas). Indeed this “cheap” gas will not be around for long as once again gas will go up to $3+ a gallon. Everyone is so happy about $2.69 / gal gas, so they don’t think back to just a while ago it was $1.69 a gallon. That’s what the gas companies do to us. And we will see the usual excuses dished out through the news networks about refinery problems, a Gulf storm, speculators, some potentate in Arabia sneezes, mid east unrest, and the “winter fuel oil conversion” (must be a lot of people some where are still using fuel oil. When this China deal kicks in, I guess they will have to burn french fry oil).
    But cheap energy is finally here! How does 100 mpg sound ? See gas vapor engine technology at alternative-fuel-vehicle.org (this is not some ad)
    Hydrogen cell conversion kits are now being sold at auto supply stores. Imagine by 2020 half the cars in the US running on hydrogen cells using the energy of water and getting double fuel mileage ! The reason we are in this mess is the oil/government complex.