A Western-backed Syrian rebel group said it would act as a ground force to back up any U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State fighters controlling eastern areas of the country.
“If there are airstrikes against Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army is ready on the ground,” said Khalid Saleh, senior spokesman for the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces in an interview in Istanbul. “FSA brigades are engaging Islamic State fighters in different parts of Syria and they need much better support.”
The U.S has provided covert training, equipment and money for the FSA since 2012 in the hopes that group would be able to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as well as provide a bulwark against Islamist groups that have flourished in Syria over the past two years.
Instead the FSA has lost territory and been riven by infighting, while Islamic State, an al-Qaeda breakaway group, gained ground in Syria and neighboring Iraq. After capturing large swathes of northern Iraq in June, Islamic State used seized military equipment and fresh recruits to redouble their offensive in Syria.
“What’s happening now is that as IS captures more land people are giving them allegiance and that’s the challenge we are running into,” Saleh said.
Some members of Islamic State are former FSA fighters who defected to the militants as they advanced through northern Syria toward Iraq, Saleh said. It is not clear what, if any, territory in Syria remains under FSA control.
The Obama administration has said it is re-examining its policy toward Syria, although it has been wary of increasing its support to the FSA. President Barack Obama received the opposition leadership in May, and said that the U.S. remained committed to removing the Assad regime. Last month, he appeared to denigrate the FSA as a group of “doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth,” and said it was “fantasy” that its fighters were capable of defeating Assad.
Saleh blamed the FSA’s poor performance on the lack of support, and U.S. policy of “containment” that has prevented a heavier intervention in Syria. U.S. air trikes in neighboring Iraq have had the unintended consequence of causing “militants to flee over the border” to join the fighting in Syria.
“There has always been a reticence on the part of outside donors to equip the FSA due to uncertainty about” whether the weapons would end up in the hands of jihadi movements, Philip Stack, an analyst at Maplecroft, a U.K.-based global risk forecasting company, said in an e-mail.
“The FSA’s ability to influence events in Syria is extremely limited. It is fighting on several fronts and is suffering from poor morale resulting in defections from its ranks.”
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