Syria Intervenes

On Wednesday, Jassem Al Salami flagged evidence that Syria, and quite possibly Iran as well, were carrying out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq:

[Tuesday morning,] unidentified jet fighters bombed a market in the Islamist-held city of Al Qa’im in northwestern Iraq. The city, which recently fell to militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is near the Syrian border, so we’re assuming the bombers were Syrian—an eastward extension of Damascus’ brutal air war against rebel forces. At approximately the same time as the market exploded, Iraqi social media users reported contrails over Baghdad heading from west to the east. The contrails didn’t match the usual twin pattern of civilian airliners or military cargo aircraft, indicating fighters.

Four separate air arms are now active over Iraq, which is fighting a desperate battle against invading ISIS militants coming from Syria. Iraq, Syria and—possibly—Iran have bombed ISIS. And the U.S. Navy and Air Force are flying reconnaissance missions. We’re pretty sure the contrails over Baghdad weren’t from American planes.

Maliki confirmed this yesterday, saying that Syrian planes were indeed striking the militants and that he was pretty happy about it. The Syrian government is denying it, but “a Syrian source” provides Mohammad Ballout with a detailed account of what areas the air force is targeting and why:

In the past six days, Syrian warplanes conducted air operations to support Iraqi forces in their moves against ISIS and slowed down the advancement of ISIS to the Jordanian borders. ISIS has already taken over the strategic city of Ratba, which opens the way to the Saudi-Jordanian triangle and Terbil crossing and leads to Jordan.

A Syrian source reported that squadrons of Syrian military aircraft in the eastern regions, especially in Deir ez-Zour and Tabaqa, raided six Iraqi regions in coordination with the Iraqi army, two days after the ISIS attack on Mosul. Moreover, the Syrian warplanes targeted the ISIS locations in Ratba, Qaim, Mosul, al-Waleed, Baaj and al-Ramadi.

The Syrian warplanes intensified their efforts in Raqqa to strike the supporting bases of ISIS. They are also trying to destroy the organization’s main gatherings in al-Shadadi, south of Hasakah, which ISIS had transformed into spots to collect weapons and spoils that it had confiscated in Iraq.

Ian Black connects the airstrikes to Assad’s calculation that ISIS has changed from a useful propaganda tool to a security threat:

When Assad freed hundreds of hardened Salafi fighters, in 2011 and 2012, many of whom had previously been allowed, with the help of the Syrian Mukhabarat intelligence service, to cross into Iraq to fight US forces there, his intention was probably to bolster the narrative that Syria was engaged in a fight against violent extremism. Winning the propaganda war would ward off western help for the moderate opposition and cause damaging divisions in rebel ranks. …

The Syrian National Coalition, the main western-backed opposition group, dismissed those raids as “a ridiculous decoy” designed to rebuild trust with the international community after Assad’s clandestine relationship with Isis was exposed. But a plausible explanation could be that recent developments in Iraq have forced the Syrian president to take Isis more seriously than he has done so far. Tacit cooperation with a dangerous enemy may now be over. If war makes for strange bedfellows, neither party should be too surprised if, when the relationship outlives its usefulness, the other one simply kicks them out.

Along the same lines, Keating posits that Assad has been rehabilitated, at least partially, by dint of an enemy even scarier than himself:

For the most part, Assad tolerated the rise of ISIS in recent months in a bid to divide and stigmatize the rebels. He has now begun bombing them at the exact moment that the U.S. and Europe have become increasingly alarmed about the group’s rise.

A bit less than a year ago, it seemed extremely likely that the U.S. would drop bombs on Assad’s military. Today the U.S. is seriously considering dropping bombs on Assad’s enemies. And Assad has succeeded in this turnaround while continuing the wanton slaughter of Syrian civilians and possibly continuing to use chemical weapons. The Syrian leader’s actions may have plunged an entire region into irreparable chaos, but in terms of pure self-preservation, he looks pretty shrewd right now.

But still, Syria remains a humanitarian catastrophe, a fact for which Assad remains primarily responsible:

It is hard to fathom the humanitarian crisis in Syria getting any worse than it already has. But it is, with the number of Syrian civilians residing mostly beyond the reach of United Nations relief workers swelling from 3.5 million to about 4.7 million, according to new U.N. estimates. Those enduring the brunt of the misery are civilians trapped in rebel-controlled terrain, cut off from life-saving assistance by a dizzying array of bureaucratic regulations and subjected to a relentless barrage of indiscriminate barrel bomb attacks by the Syrian Air Force, according to the internal U.N. data as well as a June 20 report to the U.N. Security Council by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. …

Over the past three months, humanitarian relief deliveries to opposition areas throughout the country have fallen by 75 percent compared to the quantities of aid delivered in the first three months of the year. According to Ban, the Syrian government has systematically blocked the delivery of medical supplies — particularly syringes and blood supplies — to civilians in rebel-held areas. Ban said that was “in clear violation of international humanitarian law,” Ban wrote. “Tens of thousands of civilians are being arbitrarily denied urgent and life-saving medical care.”