Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

When the Enemy of Your Enemy Isn't Your Friend

By Sanat ValechaPublished October 24, 2014

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With the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the West must fight both the radical extremist group and its enemy, the Syrian government. To coordinate its response and ensure only its allies reap the benefits of its bombing campaigns, the international community should work more closely with its chosen moderate rebel groups in Syria.
By Sanat Valecha, 10/24/14

As the conflict in Syria has continued its descent into chaos, more and more actors have emerged to complicate the already problematic situation for the international community.  The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's (ISIL) rapid expansion since the summer adds a further layer of confusion for Western policymakers and their response to the war in Syria.  ISIL, a large, radical rebel group with origins tracing back to al-Qaeda, has come to control vast swathes of Syrian territory.  This puts it in direct opposition to Bashar al-Assad's elected government.  The international community, particularly the West, is largely opposed to the incumbent Syrian regime and has provided monetary and military aid to rebel groups deemed to be ideological moderates.  

With ISIL's meteoric rise however, the West has enemies on both sides of the conflict.  It has responded with a targeted airstrike campaign against ISIL, but the problems with the West's two-pronged response are obvious.  The airstrikes against ISIL risk inadvertently helping the Assad regime, while losses dealt to the regime could very well become gains for ISIL, as it continues to outmatch and overshadow other rebel groups.  Having enemies on opposing sides of the conflict makes it difficult for the international community to institute a coherent, effective response to the civil war in Syria.

Since Tuesday, October 14, the US-led international coalition has dropped 54 bombs in Syria, 53 of them around the northern city of Kobane where ISIL has been laying siege for weeks.  The coalition has ramped up airstrikes in Syria since September, while those in Iraq have slowed considerably.  This increase in Syria has raised questions regarding the efficacy of the airstrikes against ISIL.  Some maintain that the airstrikes do not prevent ISIL fighters from advancing further and seizing more territory.  At the same time, the regime forces, which have been unaffected by the coalition bombing campaign, have intensified their own air and ground offensives, and are advancing into rebel-held territory outside Aleppo

The West's shift of focus away from the original enemy, the Syrian government, to the new enemy, ISIL, is allowing the former to make gains at the expense of other rebel groups.  The moderate rebel groups that the US and its allies try to use as proxies are in a sense left out to dry.  They have increasingly been calling for more support from the West, feeling that their backers are losing sight of the primary objective against the Assad regime.  Not only are these groups asking for more weapons and money, but also for coordinated airstrikes against the government's positions.  Members of these groups maintain that the Syrian people will not support the international bombing campaign if it only targets ISIL and doesn't aid the larger revolution itself by targeting Assad's forced.  They also say their groups should be informed of when and where the coalition's airstrikes will occur so they can coordinate their ground operations with them.  The international coalition should work more closely with its handpicked and vetted Syrian rebel allies to ensure the airstrikes hinder both the government and ISIL's operations.

Developing and maintaining a meaningful working relationship with proxy rebel groups is one of the only remaining options for the West in its attempt to mediate the conflict in Syria.  Bombing campaigns against ISIL put the Assad regime in a position to regain lost territory, while weakening the government would allow ISIL to continue to expand into its close enemy's sovereign land.  Working closely with trusted rebel groups to ensure only they reap the on-the-ground benefits from Western airstrikes solves the problems associated with having enemies on both sides of the conflict.  In a sense, the West needs to create and bolster a third party that can act as its agent against both its enemies in Syria.  Of course there are issues with the composition of this third party.  Even the handpicked and vetted, so-called "moderate" rebel groups have proven that they cannot completely be trusted at this stage; however, short of putting Western boots on the ground, which few in the international community seem willing to consider, the coalition has few options but to develop its proxies to fight both the Assad regime and ISIL.  The situation in Syria has numerous complex and confounding variables and will not be resolved for years.  Nonetheless, something must be done to make the international response more effective.  It's high time the West formulates and sustains a coherent strategic plan of action with its rebel allies in Syria.