Are coalition airstrikes in Syria helping Assad's regime?

Are coalition airstrikes in Syria helping Assad's regime?
5 min read
19 March, 2015
Analysis: The US-led aerial campaign may be forcing the Islamic State group to retreat in certain areas, but troops loyal to Damascus - not opposition militias - are making up the ground.
Aleppo has been particularly hard hit by four years of war [Getty]
While the US-led international coalition against IS played a major role in preventing the fall of Kobane to the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis), there are indications that the operations, which expanded from Iraq into Syria in September 2014 to target both IS and the Nusra Front, are now more a part of the problem than the solution.

This is certainly the view among many in the Syrian opposition, particularly since the Pentagon declared from the outset that Coalition forces would not attack the Syrian regime directly.

And the Syrian regime appears to have benefited so far from coalition airstrikes. While they have weakened IS to a degree, they have also paved the way for the regime in many instances to expand into and retake opposition-held territory.

This is compounded by the number of civilians killed in coalition attacks. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), as many as 103 people, many women and children, have been killed so far in US-led air raids.

Coalition forces have stepped up their offensive against the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise, in recent weeks - apparently in retaliation for the group's elimination of Harakat al-Hazm ["The Steadfastness Movement"] and Jabhat al-Thuwar ["Syrian Revolutionaries Front"], both allied to a degree with the US.

The average daily cost of the operation against IS and Nusra was around $8.5m between August and October 2014, according to the Pentagon. But the effects of the coalition's operations could turn out to be more negative than positive at the humanitarian, economic and political levels.

The regime advances

One of the main objectives of the international coalition has been to dry up IS' revenue sources. They have targeted oil installations in eastern and northern Syria under IS control, as well as grain silos in the Aleppo countryside.

The regime, meanwhile, has sought to regain control over the countryside north of Aleppo.

The coalition offensive has inadvertently opened up the ground near Aleppo Central Prison to be re-captured by troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Assad's troops have also been able to break the opposition siege of the mainly Shia pro-regime towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa and to cut off opposition-controlled areas in the countryside from the city itself.

The opposition has, however, been able to again retake some of the areas re-captured by the regime.

As the coalition became preoccupied with a bid to train new opposition factions to fight IS, the regime captured large areas north of Hama, nearly six weeks after the airstrikes in Syria had started.
     There is no coordination between coalition strikes and the Free Syrian Army
- General Zaher Saket

"There is no coordination between coalition strikes and the Free Syrian Army," General Zaher Saket, Aleppo's Military Council head, told Al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"The coalition strikes weakened IS, but the regime took advantage of the strikes by intensifying its bombardment of other cities and retaking other areas."

Saket said he believed that only after "non-extremist" forces such as the FSA were eliminated by the regime and IS would the coalition move to finally put an end to IS. This, he said, would mean the Assad regime would have won.

While coalition strikes on IS have managed to stop the group from controlling airports and expanding its territory, the Syrian air force has stepped up its attacks on the opposition. By some estimates, Syrian war planes have doubled the number of sorties carried out against opposition forces since before the coalition bombing began.

Before his resignation, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel admitted that the Syrian regime could benefit from the attacks on IS. Though he said at the time that this did not affect Washington's demand for Assad to step down, this is now doubtful in light of recent remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry suggesting his country may have to negotiate with Assad over political transition in Syria.


As the coalition's aerial bombardment campaign in Syria drags on, the strategy appears to have turned into what resembles a reactive policy, exacting revenge against certain factions rather than having a comprehensive plan to achieve initial objectives.

This was evident in the coalition policy on the Nusra Front. In the early period, only one airstrike was carried out against Nusra, on the first day, in the Aleppo countryside. That attack killed 20 of its fighters. After that, the coalition focused on IS alone.

This changed, however, when Nusra moved against the US-backed Harakat al-Hazzm militia.

On 27 February, the coalition carried out airstrikes against Nusra's headquarters north of Idlib. Ten days later, the coalition targeted Nusra again near the border with Turkey in an attack killing 17 people.

The strikes were seen as revenge for Nusra's defeat of Hazzm, which had reportedly been supplied with anti-tank missiles by the CIA and received training from the US military in Qatar.

Collateral damage

The civilian casualties came mostly during coalition air strikes on IS-held oil installations.

The SNHR's figures - up to 103 civilians killed, including eleven women and eleven children since September 2014 - are difficult to verify. Local sources confirmed to al-Araby in December 2014 that ten civilian workers at a site near Dayr al-Zawr were killed in two air strikes.

Coalition forces deny that any civilians have been killed in its operations, even though it has received 18 complaints about civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq, according to the US Department of Defence.

Although there are no complete statistics regarding the number of airstrikes carried out so far, The Washington Post put the number between 7 August and 30 December 2014 at 559 in Syria, including 438 strikes in Kobane alone.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.