America's multi-year strategy against ISIS lies on the cusp of collapse. Within six months, ISIS could begin operations near major Jordanian cities and the border with Israel. Within six months, America's ground partners against ISIS -- the moderate Syrian opposition, which has suffered thousands of casualties to push ISIS back -- could soon be expelled from all territories near ISIS's de facto capital of Raqqa. At that point, an international ground force may be necessary to remove ISIS sanctuaries. Time is running short for a Syrian "train and equip" program. To remain viable, moderate Syrian rebels need weapons now.
The situation has become so dire because Syrian Revolutionaries' Front, the main anti-ISIS fighting unit in the U.S.-endorsed Free Syrian Army, was expelled from most of its strongholds over the weekend by Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Nusra. While most Syrian rebels fight both ISIS and the Assad regime, the Syrian Revolutionaries' Front is among the few fighting Nusra as well. In an audio message Tuesday, Nusra's leader vowed to similarly defeat all brigades "who try to become Western tools against the regional Islamic project."
While the U.S. military conducted airstrikes on Nusra positions last night, CENTCOM explicitly noted in a statement that "These strikes were not in response to the Nusrah Front's clashes with the Syrian moderate opposition." Rather, the military signified that the strikes targeted the "Khorasan Group" of al Qaeda operatives plotting attacks on the West. Such limited action will not be sufficient. The U.S. needs to arm and otherwise support its moderate partners, who have already been receiving advanced American weapons on a trial basis since May, before these forces are wiped off the board.
Without rapid and substantial support, the moderate Free Syrian Army could soon be expelled from territories contiguous to ISIS, rendering the American anti-ISIS strategy obsolete. Nusra's next target is probably Hazzm Movement, which, like the Revolutionaries' Front, has already been vetted and received U.S. anti-tank missiles. Hazzm lost a number of critical bases to Nusra this weekend before entering into a tenuous ceasefire under duress. The moderate Northern Knights Brigade was also forced to vacate its base to Nusra, but burned its heavy weapons before leaving to keep them from Nusra's hands.
If the Free Syrian Army can weather further Nusra assaults, the Assad regime and ISIS are closing in. Outside the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, Assad forces are mounting a furious assault to cut off the rebels' last supply line. ISIS is also targeting that same supply line, even as it besieges Free Syrian Army and Kurdish fighters 70 miles east in Kobani. When Free Syrian Army reinforcements entered Kobani last Wednesday, they found that over half the city was in ISIS hands.
Those who think that, if moderate rebels are defeated, Iran and Assad can remove ISIS from Syria are delusional. Iran has gone all-out for Assad ever since summer 2013, when its proxy Hezbollah flooded over 3,000 fighters into Syria to fight the Free Syrian Army. Eighteen months later, pro-regime forces are desperate for manpower. Hezbollah has lowered its fighting age to 16, and Iran has been reduced to recruiting clueless Afghani mercenaries who say of ISIS: "If we see them in Syria, we will definitely sit with them...if our thoughts were similar, we would become friends."
Even if America were to put boots on the ground, it is debatable whether efforts would succeed without popular support. Analysts continue to debate whether the 2007 "Surge" in Iraq could have worked without the accompanying "Anbar Awakening" that rallied local support against al Qaeda. A recent systematic study concluded that a "synergistic interaction" between the two was required.
Areas under ISIS control in Syria today are anti-Assad areas. Before ISIS seized power by force, these territories achieved numerous revolutionary milestones. Although ISIS now controls eastern Syria, the shadowy "White Shrouds" guerilla force, which is led by an anti-Assad commander, continues to assassinate ISIS fighters. If the U.S. wants local partners against ISIS in Syria, America must convince Syrians that it wants Assad gone. But since coalition strikes began, Assad has only come closer to strangling Aleppo. Syrians today are not convinced of American intentions, and as a consequence, Nusra is gaining popularity.
This will have disastrous regional consequences in the near future. Nusra could soon seize control of opposition-held areas in Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising that borders Jordan and Israel. As recent events show, Nusra has some crossover with ISIS and is growing more radical. The road from Nusra to ISIS is much shorter than the road from the Free Syrian Army to ISIS, and even before last week, Free Syrian Army leaders were warning me of an impending "sudden birth" for ISIS in the south.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration continues to rely on a piecemeal approach to fighting ISIS: bomb ISIS today, train Syrians next month, provide arms next year, address Assad in two years. Tackle Iraq before Syria, save Kobani before Aleppo, and equip Syrian partners for defense before offense. The Obama Administration has yet to even present a plan to roll back ISIS in Syria, even though Syria could pose a greater threat than Iraq with respect to homegrown terrorism. After Canadian citizen Michael Zehaf-Bibeau executed terror attacks on Canada's Parliament and War Memorial, his mother revealed that he "wanted to travel to Syria" to join ISIS.
The Obama Administration needs to understand that its train-and-equip program is simply too piecemeal and too slow. Under the program, the U.S. would train, equip and deploy roughly 5,000 fighters a year into Free Syrian Army areas. If ISIS maintains its current pace of recruitment, it will recruit 12,000 fighters over the same time period. Since over 100,000 people each are already fighting for Bashar al-Assad and for the Syrian opposition, 5,000 fighters a year represents only a drop in the bucket. Furthermore, in the absence of immediate and substantial support, there may be no Free Syrian Army areas into which to deploy in six months' time.
Therefore, the United States needs to act quickly on all fronts. In southern Syria, this means ramping up supplies of heavy weapons and funding for social services to the Southern Front -- the Free Syrian Army's southern branch -- to forestall a possible Nusra or ISIS takeover. Neighboring states Israel and Jordan have already moved in this direction. In north-central Syria, this means urgent weapons supplies to Free Syrian Army units who are fighting an active three-front war against Assad, ISIS and Nusra.
Finally, in the north, Aleppo City must be defended. No matter that it is Assad forces who soon might besiege the city. The encirclement of Aleppo by the Assad regime would reverberate across Syria, driving up support for Nusra in the south, discouraging opposition to ISIS in the east, and eviscerating the anti-ISIS forces closest to ISIS's capital in the north. A no-fly zone would remove the Assad regime's ability to launch barrel bomb attacks, which have proven to be a decisive strategic advantage in Aleppo. One way or another, the U.S. needs to inflict defeats on Assad in Aleppo, or the anti-ISIS strategy is over.
President Obama's Democratic Party suffered dramatic defeats to Republicans in Congressional midterms on Tuesday, in an election largely seen as a referendum on Obama Administration policies. Yet in the aftermath of the elections, the President and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell both pledged bipartisan action to serve the American people. Few issues require as urgent attention as America's ISIS strategy. Let us hope that they act quickly to keep Syrians and Americans safe.
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council in Washington, a board member of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria and a fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.