In the latest in a series of escalations of America’s involvement in the war in Syria and Iraq, President Obama has authorized the use of air power to defend U.S.-backed rebels in Syria against attacks from ISIS and al-Qaida-linked groups as well as, if necessary, from Syrian government forces.
The new policy, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, comes after the militant group Jabhat al-Nusra attacked a U.S.-trained rebel group last week, capturing its leaders. The attack took many by surprise—while not formally allied, the al-Qaida–linked Nusra and the Western-backed groups have generally trained their fire on ISIS and government troops rather than each other. The U.S. responded with airstrikes against Nusra on Friday.
Under the new rules authorized by the White House, the U.S. will continue to launch offensive airstrikes, only against ISIS. But it can launch defensive strikes on any group that attacks the U.S.-backed rebels, including government forces.
This opens up the potential for something the Obama administration has been trying to avoid since 2011: direct combat between U.S. forces and the Assad regime. It’s possible this could deter regime attacks, with Assad’s forces already seriously depleted after years of punishing warfare. But the Syrian leader has demonstrated a penchant for seeing just how far he can push the envelope in the past.
The U.S. has been struggling to gain recruits for its rebel force in Syria, in large part because it wants them to focus on ISIS rather than the Syrian government, which most Syrian rebels see as the larger threat. It’s possible this new authorization will attract more of the recruits seen as necessary for waging international campaign against ISIS without using U.S. ground troops. But given that the number of U.S.-trained rebels is still only in the dozens, further direct U.S. involvement in both Syria and Iraq seems inevitable at this point.
Today also saw the release of a report by a coalition of independent journalists that estimates 459 civilians, including 100 children, have been killed in the international air campaign, which the coalition calls “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.” That may be correct, but as the ongoing U.S. drone war shows, advanced technology can never completely eliminate the risk of civilian casualties. Four hundred fifty-nine is still a small fraction of those killed by ISIS or Assad’s regime, but it is a reminder, as America’s role in the war escalates, that this involvement will not be as neat and surgical as promised at the outset.