Syria airstrikes off to rocky start; no-fly zone needed

The Washington Post reports that U.S. airstrikes in Syria have “gotten off to a rocky start.” The primary beneficiary of the strikes, according to Post reporter Liz Sly, is the Assad regime.

With ISIS under pressure from U.S. airstrikes, Sly says the regime has been able to focus its resources on the rebels that President Obama hopes, after a year of training, will be able successfully to fight ISIS. One observer told Sly that the way things are going, “a year from now there might not be any moderate rebels left.”

I’m not entirely persuaded by all aspect of Sly’s report. For example, I’m not sure of the extent to which Assad was devoting resources to the portions of Syria where the U.S. has targeted ISIS. Assad’s focus seems to have been (and continues to be) on fighting rebels in northeastern Syria where there have been no U.S. strikes.

Regardless of whether, or to what extent, our airstrikes are affirmatively helping Assad, it seems clear that they are not helping the rebels we support. The “moderate” rebels are fighting in the northeast, especially in and near Aleppo. As noted, we have not attacked ISIS in that region.

If the U.S. expects the Free Syrian Army to serve as foot soldiers against ISIS, it must support them in their fight for survival. And that fight isn’t just against ISIS; it’s also against Assad.

How should we proceed? The answer, I think, is the one proposed by the Obama administration’s Syria fall-guy — Turkey.

Turkish president Erdogen has called on the U.S. to create a no-fly zone over Northern Syria. Naturally, he has his own, non-benign reasons for wanting this, but the rebels we support also want a no-fly zone.

As the Washington Post editors point out, “such a move would not interfere with the campaign against the Islamic State, but it would give moderate rebels some respite from attacks and some territory in which to regroup.” Importantly, it would also address the humanitarian disaster that Assad is inflicting on the region through his indiscriminate use of barrel bombs.

Obama’s strategy for fighting ISIS in Syria seems like a longshot. In the best of circumstances, it’s probably the equivalent of drawing on an inside straight. But without a strategy for relieving pressure on the rebels he intends to rely on, Obama is drawing on the inside straight from a deck devoid of the missing card.

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