France has urged the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to escalate its involvement in Syria by rallying to the defense of allied rebel forces in Aleppo while the gains of Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate are also raising pressure on Washington to expand its involvement in an increasingly complex Syrian conflict.
The rebel front in Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, remains the key prize still in the hands of the “moderate” groups designated by the West as the Syrian partners for its campaign against ISIL, but the rebels there are caught between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIL and its allies. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius wrote in an op-ed on Tuesday for The Washington Post and other publications that allowing this “bastion” of the opposition to fall would end hopes of a political solution in Syria’s three-year civil war.
“Abandoning Aleppo would condemn 300,000 men, women and children to a terrible choice: the murderous siege of the regime’s bombs or the barbarity of the Islamic State terrorists,” Fabius wrote. “It would be the death of any political perspective and would see the fragmentation of the country run by increasingly radicalized warlords. It would also export the internal chaos of Syria towards already fragile neighbors Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.”
Fabius’ call resonated with last week’s grim warning by the International Crisis Group (ICG) that the U.S. strategy of partnering with designated “moderates” in Syria’s rebellion would collapse absent “urgent action” in Aleppo. “As Aleppo goes, so goes Syria’s rebellion,” the respected Brussels-based think tank warned. “The city is crucial to the mainstream opposition’s military viability as well as its morale, thus to halting the advance of the Islamic State.”
The ICG saw the only two options facing Western policymakers as somehow persuading Iran and Russia to press Assad to halt his attempts to recapture the city — which it admitted was a highly unlikely scenario — “or, more realistically, for the U.S., Europe and regional allies to qualitatively and quantitatively improve support to local, non-jihadi rebel factions in Aleppo.”
Assad’s military has taken advantage of U.S. airstrikes against ISIL to intensify its campaign against rebels on other fronts, including Aleppo. Fabius’ call is directed largely at the U.S.; while France is mounting airstrikes and supporting allied ground forces against ISIL in Iraq, it has ruled out carrying out airstrikes in Syria even though it provides aid to allied rebel forces.
Barack Obama’s administration is facing pressure to expand its Syria war to other fronts, with the Post reporting Tuesday that U.S. officials are weighing airstrikes against Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), which is a key ISIL rival and the Syrian affiliate of Al-Qaeda.
Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters have in recent days routed Western-favored rebel groups in northern Syria, in what Aron Lund, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says is the group’s campaign to bounce back from its eclipse by ISIL and consolidate its position as the largest non-ISIL force in the area. Jabhat Al-Nusra is now pressing toward the Bab al-Hawa Syria-Turkey border crossing, currently controlled by U.S.-backed forces. Seizing it would give Jabhat Al-Nusra control over a vital corridor for outside support to reach rebel groups. The U.S. previously launched missile strikes against a Nusra cell that Washington has designated the Khorasan group but has not tackled Nusra forces more broadly. A number of “moderate” rebel forces have cooperated with Jabhat Al-Nusra.
Obama’s promise of a light U.S. footprint in its campaign against ISIL is being tested by the harsh realities in Syria, where the rebel groups designated as worthy of Western support are fighting for survival. And routing them appears to be a common goal of the Assad regime, Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIL.
Without giving concrete details how France proposed to help save Aleppo, Fabius said he could not accept that the city would be left to its fate.
"That's why, with our coalition partners, we must turn our efforts to Aleppo,” he wrote, “to strengthen the moderate opposition and protect the civilian population against the twin crimes of the regime and Islamic State. After Kobani, we must save Aleppo."
Al Jazeera and Reuters