REYHANLI, Turkey — The U.S.-led air war in Syria has gotten off to a rocky start, with even the Syrian rebel groups closest to the United States turning against it, U.S. ally Turkey refusing to contribute and the plight of a beleaguered Kurdish town exposing the limitations of the strategy.
U.S. officials caution that the strikes are just the beginning of a broader strategy that could take years to carry out. But the anger that the attacks have stirred risks undermining the effort, analysts and rebels say.
The main beneficiary of the strikes so far appears to be President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have taken advantage of the shift in the military balance to step up attacks against the moderate rebels designated by President Obama as partners of the United States in the war against extremists.
The U.S. targets have included oil facilities, a granary and an electricity plant under Islamic State control. The damage to those facilities has caused shortages and price hikes across the rebel-held north that are harming ordinary Syrians more than the well-funded militants, residents and activists say.
At the start of the air campaign, dozens of U.S. cruise missiles were fired into areas controlled by the moderate rebels, who are supposed to be fighting the Islamic State. Syrians who had in the past appealed for American intervention against Assad have been staging demonstrations denouncing the United States and burning the American flag.
“Everyone is angry with the airstrikes. For three years we have been asking for support, and now the West decides to hit only the Islamic State?” said Abu Wassim, a rebel fighter in the northern province of Idlib. The strikes are weakening the Islamic State, he said, but “empowering the regime.”
Since the outcry about the choice of targeting in the first days of the air campaign, the majority of coalition attacks have been concentrated in the three northern and eastern provinces governed by the Islamic State as part of its self-proclaimed caliphate, which stretches across the Syrian border into Iraq.
U.S. officials say the strikes are working to achieve the core American objective — to degrade and ultimately defeat the militants.
“The airstrikes are hitting the targets they are intended to hit,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told journalists Friday. “They take out ISIL positions. They take out ISIL tanks. They take out ISIL weapons. That’s obviously helping,” she said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Residents of Islamic State-
controlled areas say the attacks have had a noticeable impact on the jihadist group’s tactics and behavior, forcing it to adopt a lower profile to avoid detection from the air.
In their self-styled capital of Raqqah, the foreign jihadists who until recently swept through the streets in armored convoys, showing off American Humvees and other booty captured from the Iraqi army, now drive around in regular vehicles, according to residents. A wealthy neighborhood of spacious villas has been abandoned by the Chechen, European, Arab and other foreign fighters who had moved in. They have relocated to apartments in the city center, blending in among the ordinary citizens, residents say.
Elsewhere, the militants have vacated headquarters, checkpoints, command posts, courts and other facilities, many of which had been conspicuously painted with the Islamic State’s distinctive black-and-white logo.
“You don’t see them around like you used to,” said a resident of Raqqah, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The strikes are not unpopular among ordinary people in Raqqah, who yearn for an end to the militants’ harsh rule, said another resident interviewed on a visit to Turkey. He also spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is afraid. Since the U.S.-led attacks began, Syrian government airstrikes have stopped, he said.
“The big difference between the coalition strikes and the Assad strikes is that the coalition strikes are accurate and they only hit the Islamic State,” he said, speaking during a visit to relatives. “The Assad strikes only kill civilians.”
But the attacks have not loosened the militants’ grip on power, he and other residents said, or had any significant impact on the militants’ capacity to launch offensives and capture territory, as the assault on the Kurdish border town of Kobane has demonstrated. Over a two-week period, fighters swept unimpeded through a string of villages around the town. Only when they reached the town itself did the U.S. military weigh in with intensified strikes.
U.S. officials have defended the response to the Kobane battle by pointing to the broader strategy, which is primarily aimed at rolling back the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq.
“In Syria, the purpose of the airstrikes largely is to get at this group’s ability to sustain itself, to resupply, to finance, to command and control,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman, told reporters last week. “They use Syria as the sanctuary and safe haven so that they can operate in Iraq.”
In Iraq, however, the United States has allies beyond the borders of the Islamic State’s territories who back the airstrikes, including the Iraqi government and the leaders of the semiautonomous Kurdish region. At least in some parts of the country, those allies are in a position to dispatch ground forces to capitalize on the airstrikes.
In Syria, the strikes have highlighted the absence of U.S. partners on the ground. Moderate rebels grouped in the Free Syrian Army were pushed out of the Islamic State’s northeastern strongholds during fierce fighting over the summer and now have no presence in the areas that are the chief target of the coalition attacks.
The one front on which the rebels are battling the Islamic State, in the northern province of Aleppo, has not seen any coalition airstrikes, even though rebels say they have asked for them.
Instead, the Syrian government launched a new offensive last week aimed at cutting off rebel supply lines to Aleppo city a few miles farther south, forcing the rebels to redirect troops from the fight with the militants.
In Khan Sheikhoun, a front-line town in rebel-held Idlib province, the rate of government airstrikes has tripled since the U.S.-led attacks were launched, according to activists in the town.
“There’s a disconnect between a stated American policy that recognizes you need a credible local force on the ground and a campaign that is undermining those local forces,” said Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who is monitoring the war from Syria’s northern border with Turkey. If the U.S. government doesn’t speed up plans to support the Free Syrian Army, “a year from now there might not be any moderate rebels left,” he said.
U.S. officials say they are aware of the need to accelerate the effort to train and equip an effective rebel force in Syria. Harf said a Pentagon team will be dispatched to Turkey next week for discussions on ways to do that. The White House strategy includes a $500 million program to train and equip 5,000 Free Syrian Army fighters, but that still has not begun.
“We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now,” Kirby said Wednesday. “It’s just a fact.”Even rebels who have received U.S. support now have withdrawn their backing for the U.S.-led air campaign, which they had initially welcomed. Harakat Hazm, the group anointed with the first deliveries of U.S.-made antitank weapons this year, issued a statement calling the American effort “a sign of failure whose devastation will spread to the whole region.”
The rebels say they have been put in a difficult position in which they are being asked to support a strategy that has so far brought them no benefits and is regarded with suspicion by ordinary Syrians. They are now insisting they will not support the strikes unless the strategy is extended to include toppling the Assad regime — a position shared by Turkey, which hosts the rebel leadership.
“We have no problem with striking the Islamic State, but people think it is Syrians who are being targeted, which makes it difficult for the Free Syrian Army to support America,” said Salim al-Birin, a commander with the Fifth Legion, another group that has received U.S. support. “That is why we want strikes against the regime as well. Then maybe people would change their minds.”