This article was first published in The New York Times.
President Obama made the right decision to boost military aid to moderate Syrian rebels last year, but today America’s approach to attacking Islamic State fighters risks undermining the moderate opposition and alienating support among the Syrian public.
Last Friday, for the first time I can recall, opponents of the government of Presidentburned an American flag, and anti-American demonstrations mushroomed across opposition-held areas in . These people have no love for the Islamic State, also known as , but this means something went seriously wrong with our initial campaign of airstrikes.
The rebels were furious that the Americans had not targeted the Assad government, which has killed far more Syrian civilians than the Islamic State has. Syrians perceive, wrongly, that the Americans and regional allies don’t care about the government’s atrocities, and are concerned only with the Islamic State. Our targeting of terrorist elements attached to the Nusra Front — the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, which is fighting the Assad government — added to the rebels’ suspicion that the Americans were helping Mr. Assad as much as fighting the Islamic State.
Moderate armed opposition groups also looked foolish because the American side didn’t coordinate the strikes with them, even though we have worked with them before. An American journalist on the Turkish border told me last week that moderate rebels were briefed on the strikes only after most of us had already seen the video evidence via the Internet. We also made the moderate fighters appear naïve about working with us because the attacks didn’t much help their battles against the Islamic State in northern Syria.
With public distrust of American motives running high in Syria, we’re disempowering the very opposition we’re supposed to be helping. Leaders of the Free Syrian Army have demanded that attacks focus on “the forces of tyranny and the patrons of extremism represented by the Assad regime.” We need a swift tactical adjustment to reassure the Syrian opposition of our good intent.
Continue reading at The New York Times.