Crisis in Syrian City Exposes Fissure in Obama’s Anti-ISIS Coalition

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A United Nations official warned Friday of a coming massacre in a Syrian town along the Turkish border as the slowly unfolding tragedy there exposed a crucial fissure within President Barack Obama’s international coalition to fight the militant group ISIS.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva on Friday, the U.N.’s special representative for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters that, despite days of U.S.-led air strikes in the area, fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have virtually surrounded the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. Mistura estimated that some 700 residents remain in the town—most of them elderly and unable to flee like tens of thousands of other local residents already have.

Those people will “most likely [be] massacred” if the town falls to ISIS, he said.

Turkish troops just across the Syrian border from Kobani could likely rescue the town. But Turkey has a fraught relationship with the region’s Kurds. More ominously for the Obama Administration, Turkey appears unwilling to join the direct fight against ISIS unless the coalition’s strategy dramatically expands to include taking on the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

In an Oct. 6 interview with CNN, for instance, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu argued that a campaign which solely targets ISIS is a futile pursuit. “We believe that if Assad stays in Damascus with this brutal policy, if [ISIS] goes, another radical organization may come in,” he said.

Though it may be the most vocal, Turkey is not the only major U.S. ally convinced that Assad is a more important target than the radical militants of ISIS.

“There are two competing objectives within the coalition. Some countries are more interested in removing Assad, while other countries are more interested in addressing the extremist threat,” an Arab government official said. “The challenge the US will face is how to keep the coalition together and functioning given these divergent goals.”

While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have joined in some American air strikes against ISIS, those Gulf Arab countries have long urged Obama to take bolder action against Assad. Their Sunni monarchs detest the Syrian dictator, a key ally of Shi’ite Iran, and whose fight to retain power has transformed into a Shi’ite-Sunni religious war that has both spawned ISIS and given it safe haven.

“They’ve always been of the mind that their participation in this coalition is really a prelude to a broader campaign against Assad,” said Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Both countries have supplied Syrian rebel groups—including factions with extremist ties—and have pressed the U.S. to arm the rebels with advanced weapons such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The Saudis were particularly upset when Obama decided not to follow through with planned air strikes against Assad last September in response to his regime’s use of chemical weapons.

Obama never relished the prospect of a head-on fight with Assad. Military action aimed at toppling the Syrian ruler could spoil Obama’s intense efforts to win a nuclear deal with Tehran, which would be furious over such an intervention. Toppling Assad by force would also create an unpredictable political vacuum that could be filled by extremists—Obama need look no farther than anarchic Libya for an example.

But U.S. allies determined to see Assad go argue that getting rid of him is the highest priority, and that extremists can be dealt with later.

Obama disagrees. In his Sept. 10 address announcing military action against ISIS in Syria, Obama repeated his longstanding policy of seeking a “political settlement” for the Syria’s civil war, in which ISIS is just one actor. Obama plans to provide more training and aid to moderate Syrian rebels in the hope they’ll pressure Assad to negotiate a power transition that would require him to leave the country.

Assad has so far shown no interest in cutting a deal to surrender his power, and multiple rounds of peace talks in Geneva over the past year have produced no significant results.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Assad serves as a de facto ally in the fight against ISIS, although Obama officials insist they are not coordinating military action against the radical group with Damascus.

But Obama may find it increasingly difficult to battle ISIS without coming into conflict with Assad’s forces. “Sooner or later the linkage is going to be forced,” said Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute. Salem wonders how Obama would react if American-trained rebels come under aerial bombardment by Assad’s air force: Would U.S. forces pounding ISIS targets elsewhere in the country refuse to intervene? (That would hardly inspire goodwill among the rebels.)

How should the U.S. respond Assad’s forces move to claim territory cleared by ISIS after coalition attacks? And will Obama tolerate Assad’s infamously brutal attacks on civilian populations now that U.S. fighter-bombers are mere minutes away from the scene of such crimes?

“The U.S. will soon be in a very public situation where Syrian helicopters are throwing barrel bombs at civilian populations, like in Aleppo, and the U.S. is gallivanting around and leaving them be,” Salem predicted.

Under those scenarios, Obama would face extreme pressure from coalition members like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to take on Assad’s forces directly — perhaps enough to threaten the coalition he and Secretary of State John Kerry so proudly assembled this fall.

For now, Obama officials won’t entertain talk of shifting their sights to Assad. During a Friday briefing, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked whether “is it still the U.S. position that you are not going after [Assad].”

“Correct,” she replied.

President Obama clearly hopes to maintain that position while also holding together his anti-ISIS coalition. Whether that is possible remains to be seen.

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