Last week, the Pentagon triumphantly announced that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had lost over a quarter of its Iraqi territory. But whatever happens in Iraq, the United States is not winning the ISIS fight.
The Pentagon also assessed last week that ISIS was gaining in Syria. Remember, ISIS took Iraq's second city after attacking from Syria. Before capturing a single Iraqi city, ISIS had already lured a historic number of Western extremists to Syria. As long as ISIS has Syrian bases, its returning foreign fighters will pose a domestic terror threat.
So why is progress in Syria so slow? The answer lies somewhere between Washington, D.C, and Lausanne, Switzerland, where world powers recently negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. I know for a fact that President Obama has soft-pedaled the ISIS fight in Syria to boost the Iran deal.
When U.S. warplanes bombed ISIS in Kobani, Syria, Syrian Americans asked for airstrikes nearby to back Syrian rebels fighting ISIS. We were refused because this would anger Iran, which supports the Assad regime in Syria. That month, as The Wall Street Journal later reported, President Obama wrote Iran's supreme leader describing a shared interest in fighting ISIS and reassuring him that the U.S. would not target Assad.
Bashar al-Assad does not merit such assurances. While he talks a good game about terrorism as he barrel bombs civilians, only 6% of his military operations target ISIS. Furthermore, Iran's proxies in Syria who sustain Assad seem to dispute the President's assessment of shared interests. This February, Iran-backed militias launched two large Syrian offensives not on ISIS, but on mainstream Syrian rebels who have kept ISIS away.
President Obama has endorsed these rebels as the "best counterweight to extremists" in Syria. However, he has also derided them as former "farmers or dentists" who will need years of training. His training program for moderate rebels, which graduates 5,000 trainees a year, recruits at half the speed of ISIS and is too slow to succeed. Perhaps President Obama really believes, as some so-called "realists" do, that Iran is a better anti-ISIS partner.
If so, he needs to reconsider. Iranian popularity among Syrians and all Arabs is very low and falling fast because Iran supports Assad. In October 2014--the same month as President Obama's letter to Iran--American failure to target both Assad and ISIS drove up local support for the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate. Abdel-Baset Saroot, the former Syrian pro-democracy leader, joined ISIS specifically because the world "did not lift a finger" as Iranian proxies besieged his hometown.
Because Iran supports Assad, an U.S.-approved Iranian foothold in Syria as a result of the nuclear deal would push thousands of Syrians toward ISIS. It would also fail, because the strongest anti-ISIS actor in Syria today is the "farmers or dentists" that President Obama derides. Just look at military developments since February:
In the north, a new hardline rebel coalition stormed the last northern city under full regime control and captured it in just five days. Rebels resoundingly defeated Iran-backed foreign fighters near Syria's largest city, then breached regime defenses inside the city for the first time in three years. In the south, rebels repulsed a major Iran-backed offensive by inflicting heavy casualties. They then seized a strategic town and the main border crossing into Jordan before resuming their gradual advance toward the capital.
Since Iran-backed foreign fighters first entered Syria, they have succeeded only along the Lebanese border, next to Iran's main proxy Hezbollah. But that victory concluded a year ago, and local rebels seem to be recovering. Last week, they captured a strategic hill and assassinated the provincial governor.
At this pace, an outright rebel victory could become possible or even "inevitable," as Obama Administration officials once liked to say. The U.S. can no longer ignore Syria's mainstream opposition, the fastest-rising force on the Syrian battlefield. Unlike the Assad-Iran alliance, Syrian rebels have repeatedly proven their willingness and ability to defeat ISIS. Deal or no deal with Iran, America must work with them.
President Obama recently stated, "Our core interests are...that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them." He also asked why "we can't have Arabs...fighting against what Assad has done." But only he can answer this question. In February 2014, when Assad launched his fiercest barrel bombings of the entire war on civilians who had evicted ISIS, Saudi Arabia sought to transfer anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition. President Obama vetoed the transfer.
In light of the President's change of heart, and since his old "weapons in the wrong hands" argument no longer applies, I hope to see anti-aircraft weapons or a no-fly zone over Syrian opposition areas soon to enforce America's core interest of stopping the barrel bombs.
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is a Senior Political Adviser, Government Relations Director, and Strategist with the Syrian American Council based in Washington, DC. and a Fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies