7:24 am - Thursday November 5, 2015

Islamic State: Syria rebels warn of backlash over US air strikes

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Syrian rebel fighters backed by the West have told the BBC that the US-led coalition faces a backlash in their country over its bombing campaign against Islamic State (IS). There have been protests against the air strikes and a warning that they are turning people against the West, as the BBC’s Ian Pannell reports from the Turkish-Syrian border.

With one knee on the ground and an eye locked on a Syrian government tank in the distance, a rebel soldier opens fire.

A high-tech, wire-guided missile launches, twisting and turning through the air, slamming into its target.

The is one of more than a hundred American-made anti-tank weapons given to a select few rebel groups in Syria this year.

Although the systems are made in the US, they are widely believed to have been supplied by a third country in the Gulf and distributed under the umbrella of the Friends of Syria group of nations that oppose President Bashar al-Assad, which includes the US, UK and Saudi Arabia.

Since Islamic State made rapid gains in Iraq and Syria this year, these rebel groups have been urged to turn their weapons towards the jihadist militants.

When President Barack Obama said in an interview last month that “the boots on the ground need to be Syrian” these are the fighters he meant.

The US has promised much more support as it vows to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State.Speaking at the UN General Assembly last month, Mr Obama said: “America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of [IS] and the brutality of the Assad regime.”

Tensions
But a number of armed groups vetted by the US to help fight against the militants say the support they have been given is not enough.

And there are growing warnings that the international coalition faces a backlash over its bombing campaign in Syria.

For the past few weeks US and Arab aircraft have been flying regular missions over Syria, seeking out targets and trying to destroy militant bases and storage sites.

But the ground strategy is still barely formed.There have been tensions between the new allies since the air strikes began.

Support
It has emerged that when coalition planes launched their mission in Syria on 23 September, no-one saw fit to tell President Obama’s new allies on the ground.

The US administration says it is training and equipping the opposition, but the view from the ground is certainly that it is too little and risks being too late.

Major Ahmed Al Saud leads the 13th Division, one of the more moderate rebel groups that have been vetted by America. He says only a fraction of the promised weapons and support has been supplied.

“No war can be won solely from the air. It needs fighting on the ground,” he adds.

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Major Ahmed Al Saud, 13th Division leader: “No war can be won solely from the air”
“This requires support. If we don’t have it, then we can’t fight inside.”

Islamic State does not have the same supply problems. One of their videos shot last week shows groups of fighters advancing across barren ground, opening fire on a Kurdish village.

Unfulfilled promises
The Syrian rebels successfully forced IS militants to retreat to their stronghold of Raqqa earlier this year in a rare moment of unity. But after their successes in Iraq, the jihadists re-emerged better armed and funded than their foes and have since pushed back.

American officials have been meeting rebel fighters in Turkey to try to halt the march of Islamic State.

The Syrian opposition is very clear on what it needs to do this – not long-term training in Saudi Arabia, but immediate supplies and support.

They are frustrated at what they say are unfulfilled promises of weapons.

And they and their supporters are angry because they say that coalition air strikes have done little to help them and nothing to protect civilians from ongoing government attacks.

“There is a lot of concern,” says Adam Kinzinger, a US Congressman who has been meeting rebel commanders in Turkey to try to bring about better co-ordination between disparate brigades.

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Congressman Adam Kinzinger calls for a no-fly zone over Syria
“Sure, [IS] is their enemy and they want to crush them – but they see the biggest enemy as Assad.

“There hasn’t been a lot of communication between our air strikes and where they are on the ground… They are almost as surprised about the strikes as [IS].”

Risk of alienation
There have been some protests in rebel-held areas – partly driven by anger at the coalition strikes on groups other than Islamic State that enjoy local support, including the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.

Reports of civilian deaths have also brought people out onto the streets. The US has denied this, but what matters is how things seem on the ground.

Islamic State fighters parade through Syrian city of Raqqa on tanks (30 June 2014)
The US estimates that Islamic State has some 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria
It is that popular perception that has some local commanders worried.

Major Tayseer Darwish is a member of a secretive operations room run by the Friends of Syria group and rebel fighters.

He and other opposition leaders fear their support base could not only dwindle but also become hostile because of their co-operation with the West.

“Our popular support will be seriously damaged when it sees that the West and the Friends of Syria are going in a different direction than that of the revolution,” he says. “This is what we don’t want to lose.”

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Major Tayseer Darwish: “We were promised a lot…nothing has materialised”
While the world focuses on Islamic State, gruesome beheadings and the coalition air campaign, Syria’s civil war grinds on.

Horrific daily attacks that kill and maim far more people than the jihadist militants do continue unabated.

That is why there is anger on the ground. Even though coalition jets are in the skies, people are barely safer than before.

Without a comprehensive ground strategy there is a risk of alienating the very people America and its allies should be winning over.

And in turn there is a risk that the threat to the West could actually grow as a result of its current tactics in Syria.

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