Why ISIS Is Gaining Ground – and So Hard to Beat
Why ISIS Is Gaining Ground – and So Hard to Beat
Normalising Relations with Syria: How Significant?
Normalising Relations with Syria: How Significant?
Interview / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

Why ISIS Is Gaining Ground – and So Hard to Beat

This interview with Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Syria, Noah Bonsey, is adapted and republished here with permission from Syria Deeply and Lara Setrakian, Syria Deeply’s Co-Founder and Executive Editor.

As of Thursday, the Islamic State (ISIS) had seized 40% of the strategic Syrian border town of Kobani, raising questions about the success of U.S.-led airstrikes meant to stem the group’s advance. The U.N. warned that ISIS could massacre the remaining 500 people trapped in Kobani, while analysts said an ISIS victory there would destabilize both the border region and the Middle East at large.

ISIS now controls roughly one-third of Syrian territory. Its continued spread has sparked a debate over new measures to counter the group, among them the possible creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria – which could require a no-fly zone to protect it.

As part of the strategy behind coalition airstrikes, unveiled last month, the U.S. had said it would rely on moderate rebel groups in Syria – what’s been known as the Free Syrian Army – to fight ISIS on the ground. But in the past couple of days, the White House admitted that those moderate groups are not prepared to take on ISIS and win; they have been outgunned and overwhelmed by the superior weapons, training and resources that ISIS has at hand.

“The U.S. shares some of the blame for the current state of the rebel forces,” said Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“Part of the issue here is that the U.S. is coming late into the game … prior to this current stage the U.S. had not invested significant resources in improving capacities.”

Bonsey gave us an in-depth explanation of why ISIS has had so much success in Syria and the challenges ahead for degrading its influence.

Syria Deeply: In their current state, how do these rebel forces fare against ISIS? What will they need to be effective?

Noah Bonsey: If we talk about fighting capacity on the ground, the rebels lack capacity and organization compared to the regime and ISIS.

They have been effective in the past. Rebels in Idlib and Aleppo threw ISIS out of Idlib province, Aleppo city and Aleppo’s western and northern countryside in January, so they have a proven track record against ISIS.

But this took place when ISIS was weaker. ISIS has gained a lot of money and manpower since then. Currently, in general, the rebels the U.S. is willing to work with are poorly organized and equipped.

The other problem is that rebels are confronting two enemies simultaneously. On the crucial front of Aleppo, for example, they are battling a regime escalation within the city, while just to the north they are engaged in fights with ISIS. In the past few months, ISIS has escalated its offensive on Aleppo’s northern countryside. The battle has now cooled a bit as ISIS focuses on Kobane, but it still requires a lot of rebel resources to hold ISIS at bay to the north of Aleppo. Meanwhile, the regime continues to push inside Aleppo, seeking to besiege rebel forces in the eastern part of the city.

The rebels lack the organization and resources to fight those two battles effectively and at the same time. Thus, we’ve seen continuous regime gains inside the city, and limited ISIS gains north of the city. So long as the rebels are forced to fight both the regime and ISIS, they do not have the capacity to maintain ground, much less gain any ground.

The rebels can’t divert resources from the fight against the regime to go fight ISIS. By doing so they would enable the regime to make additional gains, which in the case of Aleppo would be particularly devastating for rebel militants and the Syrian opposition in general.

One thing we’ve seen since the beginning of coalition strikes on Syria, while ISIS targets in eastern Syria as well as some Jabhat al-Nusra targets were hit, is that the regime has continued its indiscriminate attacks, including barrel bombing, on anti-ISIS rebels—in Aleppo as elsewhere.

The regime views the coalition strikes as another step in the direction of Western cooperation with Damascus. It has welcomed them publicly.

Thus the regime doesn’t feel under any pressure to improve its behavior or make political concessions. It has pretty much continued to engage in the behavior and tactics that created the jihadi problem in the first place, even as the coalition has gotten involved militarily in Syria. This has created a high level of anger within rebel ranks, who see the coalition engaging ISIS in a way that isn’t helpful to them, given the location of the strikes. Meanwhile they see that the strikes have given a boost of morale to the regime that continues to pursue the same strategy and tactics it did prior to the strikes.

How are the U.S. strikes impacting Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS?

Jabhat al-Nusra has credibility with Syrian activists; it has taken on a lower profile on the ground since the strikes. The strikes targeting al-Nusra strengthened their narrative and allowed them to portray the coalition campaign as a broader war on the Syrian revolution and Islam itself, as they put it. It’s difficult to tell what the impact on their capacity will be moving forward.

In terms of ISIS, the strikes initially focused primarily on their bases, weapons depots, oil facilities – things of strategic value to the organization. Tactical strikes [in support of anti-ISIS forces] were limited prior to the escalation in Kobane. The question moving forward is, will strikes hitting ISIS weaponry, personnel and resources outweigh the boost they provide to the organization’s propaganda, and even its morale?

ISIS can now claim it is fighting a war against anti-ISIS rebels, the regime, the [Kurdish] PKK, and a broader Western coalition. In terms of propaganda, they welcome the opportunity to take on the U.S.

The strikes targeting Jabhat al-Nusra, and the civilian casualties that resulted, also helped the ISIS narrative claiming that the West and its allies are waging a war against Sunni Arabs and Islam, rather than ISIS itself.

The overall costs and benefits of strikes targeting ISIS remain to be seen, but the potential for strikes alone to weaken ISIS is limited. Ultimately, you need credible ground forces that can defeat ISIS forces on the ground, that can take territory and control it. This certainly can’t be accomplished by airstrikes, and you can’t expect Kurdish, Shia or Alawite forces to take and hold territory in the Sunni-Arab areas that serve as the core of ISIS’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria. The peshmerga is not going to go into Sunni areas in Iraq and control that territory going forward, nor is the Iraqi army and its allies going to be able to do that. The same is true of regime forces in Syria. The missing component in the U.S. strategy in general has been in strengthening local credible Sunni forces on both sides of the border. We haven’t seen much progress at all in that regard.

There are now more poignant calls for a buffer zone in northern Syria. How feasible and realistic is the implementation of a buffer zone? Would it require a no-fly zone?

It would. A buffer zone would certainly require preventing the regime from carrying out airstrikes. Thus far, the Obama administration has been very reluctant to seriously consider a no-fly zone. Turkey and the rebels are pushing very hard for a no-fly zone, but I’ve seen no indication that the Obama administration will shift its position on this, given that it would require extending strikes to include taking out the air capacity of the regime, and all the accompanying costs and risks inherent to such an escalation. Barring a change of strategy in Washington, it’s difficult to see a no-fly zone being implemented. The Turks certainly can’t do it themselves.

If it were to happen, what could it achieve? What would be the upside?

It would be much easier to empower local rebel powers if regime air attacks ceased in northern Syria. The regime’s air advantage is the most important obstacle to rebels being able to gain and hold ground in the north against the regime, and to be able to better organize themselves on the ground to provide services to local people.

A no-fly zone in the north could potentially enable a much higher degree of organization within rebel ranks, assisted more directly by the opposition’s state backers.

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