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Damascus Sounds Warning Over U.S.-Led Strikes On Islamic State

Criticism of U.S.-led interventions in Syria by President Bashar al-Assad is nothing new. (file photo)
Criticism of U.S.-led interventions in Syria by President Bashar al-Assad is nothing new. (file photo)

Damascus has launched a fresh offensive in its war of words against intervention efforts by the United States and its allies to combat the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, with both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Parliament Speaker Mohammad Jihad Al-Laham insisting that U.S. efforts in Syria were exacerbating the situation.

Damascus, backed up by Moscow and Tehran, has consistently hit out at the U.S.-led coalition, saying that it is both ineffective against IS and illegal, since Washington and its allies have not requested permission from the Assad government to carry out air strikes on Syrian territory.

The claim that the U.S.-led coalition has failed to destroy or weaken IS was reiterated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this weekend, when he told CBS News's Charlie Rose that IS has expanded since the start of the U.S.-led air assaults on the extremist group in Syria.

"Sometimes you could have local benefit [from the U.S. air strikes against IS] but in general -- if you want to talk in terms of IS -- actually IS has expanded since the beginning of the strikes," Assad said.

The Syrian President said that the United States wanted to "sugarcoat the say that it's getting better...IS being defeated and so on."

"Actually, no, you have more recruits. Some estimates that they have 1,000 recruits every month in Syria. And Iraq... they are expanding in Libya and many other Al-Qaeda affiliate organizations have announced their allegiance to IS," Assad added.

Meanwhile, also on March 29, Syria's Parliament Speaker Mohammad Jihad al-Laham said that the "war on terrorism" in Syria would fail without "coordination and cooperation" with Damascus.

Laham told the Interparliamentary Union (IPU) in Hanoi that the Assad government had made frequent appeals to the international community "and warned it against the threat of the cancerous cross-border terrorism."

Together with its two most powerful allies, Russia and Iran, the Syrian government considers all of the armed opposition in Syria to be terrorists funded by external forces.

In January, Assad said that Damascus would be willing to "cooperate with any country" including the United States that was willing to "fight terrorism" in Syria.

Jabhat Al-Nusra

While criticism of U.S.-led interventions in Syria by both Assad and Laham is nothing new, their remarks come at a particularly testing time for the Syrian government.

Islamist rebels -- including the local Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra -- dealt a significant blow to the Assad government on March 28 when they captured the Syrian city of Idlib.

Charles Lister, an expert on Middle East insurgents and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center told the Bloomberg news agency that the fall of Idlib would "represent a big shock within the [Assad] regime and its supporting circles," adding that the Syrian Arab Army appears to be experiencing notable losses with public frustration emerging even in pro-government areas of Syria.

While Laham did not address the situation in Idlib specifically in his March 29 comments, the Syrian parliamentary speaker did refer to Jabhat Al-Nusra.

"Despite the heinous atrocities committed by terrorist organizations like IS and Jabhat Al-Nusra, international counterterrorism efforts remain underwhelming and shackled by erroneous policies," Syrian state news agency SANA quoted Laham as saying.

One of the "erroneous policies" referred to by Laham is the U.S. plan to train moderate Syrian rebels as a force against IS.

These plans, Laham said, were a "cover for supporting terrorism and chaos."

Damascus's fears of the rise of Jabhat Al-Nusra and other Islamist battalions are linked to its concerns about the U.S. training of "moderate" rebels.

These concerns do not just stem from fears that such training will boost the rebels' effectiveness against loyalist forces on the battlefield, but also that weapons provided by the U.S. to the rebels it vets and trains could end up in the hands of Islamist battalions.

These fears are not unfounded.

Evidence emerged in early November that Jabhat Al-Nusra was using TOW guided antitank missiles in Idlib. TOWs were provided by the United States to vetted rebel groups Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front.

Harakat Hazm collapsed this month after clashes with Jabhat Al-Nusra, coinciding with the start of a U.S.-sponsored plan to train and equip more moderate rebels.

Some analysts have said that groups like Hazm are not particularly significant -- independent analyst Malik al-Abdeh told The Guardian that the group was "like a boy band created by Simon Cowell... but people don't really care that much about them." But Jabhat Al-Nusra and its Islamist allies have proved, including in this weekend's capture of Idlib, that they -- like IS -- are eminently capable of making significant gains against Assad.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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